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Free stories from Issue Two

Hey everyone! We’re still moving along nicely. Thanks for all the word-spreading you’ve been doing. It’s definitely helping people find us!

We just got all of the stories from Issue Two posted online for free. You can find them here, along with the stories from Issue One.

Also, Tangent, a short fiction review magazine, posted a really nice review of Issue Three yesterday. Very cool.

We’re going to start posting interviews with our Year Two contributors on Monday.

Have a good weekend, and if you’re in the blizzard zone like we are, please stay safe!

“Temperance” by Christie Yant

IT WASN’T THE WORST BENDER of Anthony Cardno’s life, but it was the first that he had ended in a cemetery, vomiting into an open grave. His head throbbed; his mouth tasted of dust and sickness. He didn’t recall how he came to be here. He remembered the wagon that had carried him away from Santa Lydia, where he had quickly worn out his welcome, but he didn’t know which direction it had taken him and couldn’t guess where he might be now. As long as it wasn’t San Francisco, he’d probably be all right.

His flask lay out of reach, at the bottom of the freshly dug hole. He tried to roll over and rise, but his stomach rebelled, leaving Anthony to pray his usual prayer on mornings like these: Never again, O Lord, if only you’ll make it stop. But the Almighty had heard it all before, and Anthony’s stomach evicted its contents right into the grave. There was a ringing in his ears, and it wasn’t until the heaving stopped and he could breathe again that he heard the voices, angry and dismayed, and saw the rest of the scene before him: the grim marble markers that stretched out in rows all around him; polished leather shoes and long black skirts; the shaggy hooves of horses and the narrow wheels of a hearse wagon; and the shocked faces of the recently bereaved.

He tried to get to his feet but vertigo and drink still had him, and he tumbled over the side. He felt a rib crack as he landed hard at the bottom of the grave.

“I apologize,” Anthony said, the words coming out slow and muddy. “I apologize for disturbing your peace.” He retrieved his flask and did his best to rub the sick off it before tucking it back inside his coat.

“Get him the hell out of there.” The man who spoke stood out of view, but two young men — twins, by the look of them, with sun-faded hair, rolled sleeves, and ruddy, smirking faces — each reached a hand down and hauled him painfully over the side.

“What town is this?” he asked, and spit the sour bile that still lingered in his throat. “What day?” Those assembled stood in affronted silence.

A man stepped forward, stately and well-dressed in black hat and overcoat, a white flower in his lapel. An important man, by the look of him, but with a meanness in his eyes that reminded Anthony of his father.

“The wrong place, on the wrong day.” Anthony detected the familiar note of escalation in the air.

“I’ll just be on my way, then.” Anthony took several careful, uneven steps toward the track that led down the hill and toward the gates that he could just see beyond.

“Not just yet.” The man nodded at the pair who had pulled Anthony from the grave, and they moved in with swift menace. Each twin seized an arm and together they dragged him along, past the women who gasped and whispered behind their gloved hands, and out to the road where a row of buggies waited to carry the grieving home.

“Right there’s fine.” The boys dropped Anthony to the ground. “Stand up.” Anthony climbed unsteadily to his feet. The man stepped up to him and stood too close. “You stink of drink.”

“I meant no harm, sir.”

“My sister’s children will remember this day for the rest of their lives. So will I.”

And then he was caught again, held by the beastly twins while this man felt through his coat and searched his pockets, scattering his few belongings in the dirt. He had a moment of real fear when the man tossed his watch, and his attempt to pull away and go after it was rewarded by a sharp punch to the gut. The search continued until the man found what he was looking for.

The man pulled Anthony’s flask out of his inside pocket and held it up for all to see; then he pulled the stopper and poured the precious contents out into the dirt.

“I’m the mayor of this town, and I don’t want to know you. Get your things, and get the hell out of my sight.”

The mayor and his cohorts turned their backs on Anthony and started back toward the grave site. Anthony collected his possessions — pocket watch and watchmaker’s tools, unharmed; flask, empty; coins and notes, gathered and accounted for, despite the tremor in his hands.

“You asked what town this is,” the mayor called back over his shoulder. “You’re in Temperance. You might not care to linger.”

¤

TEMPERANCE, CALIFORNIA —  THERE WOULD  be no relief for him in this town. Dry as a bone, surely, and righteous as hell about it.

The road into town was muddy and pitted with tracks, and the high winds whipped his face, cold and smelling of the sea. He twisted his ankle painfully before he’d gone a quarter mile; he limped past fields of plants cultivated in careful rows and past the dark-skinned Japanese immigrants who tended them. They took no notice of the dejected stranger trudging his way toward town, where maybe he could find a room for the night before boarding the steamer to San Francisco.

People were forever sending Anthony away from wherever he was. Bodie, Omaha, Leadville  — he’d been through and driven out of them all. He’d go wherever they pointed him, generally, as long as it wasn’t toward home. He had reached the edge of town when he heard the slow, clip-clop crescendo of approaching horses as the funeral party returned from the hill. The party would overtake him soon; humiliation made his cheeks burn despite the cold.  He shivered and quickened his pace toward the nearest  shelter, a sturdy brick building with no sign to identify its purpose.

A door in the front stood wide open, but Anthony could see nothing in the darkness within. He took a step inside and was assailed by the heat. A furnace burned bright in the corner, and he recognized the trappings of a foundry: scrap metal in one pile, finished hinges and gadgets in another. He took a seat on a rickety stool, and within minutes the chill had finally left his bones, for what seemed like the first time since he’d been shut out of the comfort of his father’s house.

He pulled his watch from the safety of his coat pocket; it had been in the family for three generations. He’d had to buy his tools back three times now, but somehow Anthony had never lost the watch, nor sold it, nor had it stolen, nor gambled it away. He could say the same for nothing else in his life.

He opened the case with a soft click and held it to his ear. It was hard to hear above the roar of the furnace and the wind in the rafters, but the smooth tick-tick sound it made comforted him.

A sound from behind him made him jump to his feet. He expected to find the foundry owner, ready to accuse him of trespass and chase him out. Instead he found a young woman on her hands and knees in a pool of light from a source he could not see, feeling around on the dirt floor and talking under her breath. Her hair was a dark brown, and styled in a peculiar fashion: cropped boyishly short across the brow and the rest pinned back and curled under, falling only to her collar. What he could see of her dress was plain and shorter by far than was decent, but despite her apparent lack of modesty there was nothing slatternly about her — rather, he immediately felt as if he knew her.  Her nose turned up just slightly at the end, and he knew that scowl she wore — of course: She was the very image of his sister Anna, who he hadn’t heard from since he began his wanderings three years ago.

Her hands searched frantically, and though she spoke too low for him to make out the words, he recognized the tone — the panicked pleadings of someone who is in a great deal of trouble.

He cleared his throat. The girl looked up at him, hazel eyes wide with surprise and fear.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said.

“Shit,” she said. He reconsidered his early assessment of her.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re not supposed to be here!” That much was true; she had caught him trespassing and would now surely summon the smith, and Anthony would find himself once again at the wrong end of a fist.

“I’ll just be going, then,” he said.

“Sssh!” She gestured urgently for him to be quiet and looked back over her shoulder. She glared at him, shook her head, and then scrambled backward and disappeared into the shadows. A moment later the unseen light source winked out.

He crept forward to see where she might be hiding, but the corner was completely empty. The girl was gone.

A loud crash came from the opposite end of the open room — a second door swung open, and the shape of a broad, bearded man filled the doorway.

“You there!”

Anthony ran. Out the door and back to the road, his ankle sore and the pain from his cracked rib shooting through him like a bullet, but he did not stop. The man shouted after him. Anthony’s pounding pulse and the rasp of his own labored breath filled his ears. It was only when his pace slowed and he was able to catch his breath that he realized the man had been shouting, “Did you see it?”

He was exhausted and in pain, and now he found himself spooked and uneasy as well. What had he seen, exactly? He wondered if she’d really been there at all. It wouldn’t be the first time his mind had played tricks on him.

Right now he needed shelter, a room for the night, a hot meal, and — God help him — a drink.

¤

THE FRONT ROOM of the hotel was a single open space, with a small check-in desk at the front opposite a lounge area and staircase, and past that, a few scattered tables and chairs. The room seemed over-sized for its purpose, as if in the planning of it the proprietor expected to seat a hundred instead of the two men who sat at the back of the long room. Another bitter reminder of his circumstances, there was no bar along the wall; just a pair of batwing doors in the back, probably leading to the kitchen. A wood stove just past the front desk warmed the room, and the scent of something meaty simmering in the kitchen made Anthony’s mouth water.

One of the gentlemen at the far end of the room rose when Anthony closed the door behind him — he was dark-haired and mustachioed, in sleeve garters and an apron, clearly the hotelier. The other, a short, bald man, looked as if he’d just come from a funeral — which, Anthony realized with a sick feeling, he probably had.

“That’s the one,” the short man said. The proprietor raised an eyebrow, and Anthony’s hopes for a safe haven sank. He turned to leave, but the door swung open again and he found himself facing the man he’d most recently run from: the metalsmith.

“You,” the man said, and grabbed his arm above the elbow, where painful bruises from the morning’s manhandling had blossomed. “Tell me, did you see it?” So he hadn’t imagined it. Anthony nodded. “Did it speak to you? Come sit, and tell me what it said.” He allowed himself to be pull deeper into the room, and took a seat at a table. “Now tell me.”

“About the girl? Who is she?”

“That’s no girl. Or if it is, it’s surely the ghost of one.” The man extended a scarred and calloused hand for Anthony to shake. “Mike Epple.” Anthony started to introduce himself, but Mike continued before he could get a word out. “You heard it speak? What did it say?”

“Nothing that I could make sense of.”

Mike hushed him as the hotel owner approached. “Harmon,” he said to the man.

“Mike.” Harmon nodded toward Anthony. “This a friend of yours?”

“We’re acquainted. Just discussing some business.”

“What kind of business are you in? Apart from making a mess of other people’s.”

Anthony shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“Timekeeping,” Anthony said. “Watch repair.”

The bald man, silent during this exchange, stood and donned his hat. “I’ll leave you to your — guests,” he said. The front door scraped closed behind him with a sound that set Anthony’s teeth on edge.

“What are you serving tonight?” Mike asked. The proprietor folded his arms across his chest and gave him a hard look. “Harmon, have mercy. We’ve seen what no man should, and we need ourselves a damned drink. And whatever you’ve got in the pot for supper. I’m buying.” He clapped a pair of coins on the table. Harmon collected the money and retreated through the doors to the kitchen.

“That’s very generous — ”

“What do you think it wants of me?” the smith interrupted, clearly agitated. “I’ve tried to be a godly man.”

“I think she may have lost something,” Anthony said. “She didn’t seem threatening.”

“Demons never do.”

Harmon returned with two bowls of stew and a pair of glasses, each with a finger of something amber and sharp. “You carrying on about your ghost again, Mike?” Harmon pulled up a chair and produced another glass.

Mike pulled something from his pocket and set it on the table. “I found this in the foundry. Maybe it was hers before she died, and that’s why she haunts me now.”

He handed the thing to Harmon, no bigger than a button. Harmon examined it briefly before passing it to Anthony.

“You didn’t make that, Mike?”

“Nah, I couldn’t possibly. It’s too fine.”

It was a polished brass lapel pin, skillfully cast and intricately detailed. The design was of a clock face: Roman numerals, one through twelve, and the hands marking the time at quarter to six. All the way around the edge were words picked out in careful relief: Temperance Society for Historical Preservation.

“Like the Ladies’ Society, I suppose,” Harmon said. “But we haven’t much in the way of history here in Temperance. Town’s only six years old.”

The door flew open and the two townsmen swiftly disappeared all three glasses under the table and onto the floor with a practiced ease. Framed in the doorway stood a tight-lipped woman of middle years, with an air of importance, and of menace.

She passed through the lounge and was followed by a dozen more women, each with something in her hands: rolling pins and broom handles, canes and clubs. They gripped and brandished them like weapons.

“Mrs. Finncutter,” Harmon said, hands up in a placating gesture, “what’s got your ire up this evening?”

“Good evening, Mr. Harmon.” She sniffed at the air and wrinkled her nose in disgust. “For your own safety and that of your guests I suggest that you leave us to God’s work, and the work of the Ladies’ Society of Temperance.”

“I can’t imagine what you mean, ma’am. I like to think I’m doing God’s work by giving shelter to those who need it.”

“This house is well-known to be unlawful, Mr. Harmon — a house of sin and temptation. You’ve been warned; the consequences are your own.” At her signal the women charged past: two tossed the contents of the front desk, two more marched up the stairs presumably to search the rooms, several more went straight to the kitchen, and beyond it, the stable. Soon the sound of barrels and bottles being shifted and overturned could be heard in the back room.

“You’ve no right!” Harmon’s face was red as a beet as watched his hotel destroyed.  Anthony wondered what he should do; trying to stop them seemed foolhardy. Mike seemed to share his confusion. Harmon made a move toward the kitchen, where the sound of crates being upended could be heard, but just then two men stepped into the room: the bald fellow who had left not long before, and, to Anthony’s deeper consternation, the mayor. The bald man, still in his mourning clothes, held a rope in his hands. Harmon froze where he was.

Triumphant shouts of “We’ve found it!” came from the back. Anthony started to edge toward the front door, hoping to escape further violence.

“Stay right where you are.” The mayor leaned against the front desk and searched his coat pocket, and found what was he was looking for. “I’m surprised to find you here. I took you for a drunk, but not an idiot. If you were smart, you’d have been on a steamer to San Francisco by now.” He produced a pipe and box of matches. “But as you’re still here, I want you in particular to see this.” He struck a match and touched it to the bowl of his pipe. He puffed at it with the leisure of a man sitting in his own study, rather than overseeing the wreckage of a fellow man’s livelihood.

A cask was rolled out from the back by two of the women and uncorked in the middle of the room. The brandy spilled out onto the wooden planks of the floor, the smell so strong it made even Anthony choke. Where it didn’t pool it trickled down between the floorboards.

They made short work of it. When it was all over the chairs were in splinters, three illegal casks of spirits had been spilled out onto the floor, the barware was smashed, and the food stores ruined. The Ladies Society of Temperance left without a word, and the mayor’s rope-wielding associate with them.

With the last witness to the night’s calamity gone, the mayor walked a wide circle around the stunned proprietor and hapless guests, glass crunching under foot, careful not to step in the puddles of liquor that covered the floor.

“It’s a shame,” he said, and puffed on his pipe. “I took you for better, Harmon. You knew the law, and you knew you was breaking it. Can’t rightly blame the ladies for defending the town sensibilities. Still — ” He kicked a broken chair leg aside. “ — it’s a shame.”

He reached the front door and crouched down, pulling the matches from his pocket once again. Anthony’s mind clamored to make sense of what was happening — He’s the mayor, he can’t do this — as the man struck a match.

“Good night, gentlemen,” he said from the doorway, and held the match to brandy-soaked floor and stepped outside.

The spirits caught fire and the floor bloomed with bright blue flame, wending its way across the boards toward them. Anthony pushed past Harmon and ran for the kitchen. This seemed to jostle him from his stricken daze, and he quickly loaded Anthony’s arms with wet towels. The two of them did their best to smother the flames and keep it from reaching the walls.

“I’ve got it,” Mike called, carrying two full buckets, which he emptied onto the remaining flames near the front door. The three men stood side by side, watching the water drain away between the floorboards.

Something glinted on the floor beneath a settee across from the front desk. Of course, Anthony realized — the peculiar pin that belonged to the ghost girl. It must have been kicked clear across the room in the chaos.

He got on his hands and knees and reached for it. He could see it as clearly as if someone were shining a lantern on the space beneath the sofa, though where the light was coming from he couldn’t guess.

The light spread steadily outward — the otherworldly lantern lit first his hand, then the floor around it, and continued to grow. Anthony scrambled backward, trying to escape it, but the circle of light grew too rapidly, and as it enveloped him the room around him changed.

Music: loud, raucous, festive music, and laughter. He was on the floor in a sea of people,  tapping their toes to the rhythm. Colorful, bare-legged girls danced with men all dressed alike, in khaki trousers and shirts. A banner hung from the back wall in patriotic red and blue, bearing only the meaningless initials “U.S.O.”

A few people looked at him oddly and moved away, but one young man looked him over and laughed.

“I didn’t know this was a costume party, chief. You came dressed as my grandpa!”

“Under the floor,” he could hear Mike calling from the shadows beyond the light, “the liquor’s still burning under the floor!”

And then the light reached Mike and Harmon, drawing them into this place, this strange vision — and with them came the fire.

The room erupted into chaos. The flames moved fast, the paper decorations that filled the room going up and creating embers that floated in the air, still burning and igniting whatever they came to rest on. People were screaming and pressing for the door, but it was blocked now by flames. Anthony couldn’t even see his companions over the heads of strangers. For a moment he was certain he would not survive this night.

And then, there she was. The ghost girl, her brow creased in fear, standing directly in front of him. For a moment it seemed she couldn’t even see him, as if she were looking through him or past him, at the flames that seemed to be all around now. He grabbed her by the shoulders.

“We’ve got to get you out of here.” He searched the room for an escape, pulling her along through the mass of terrified people to the far wall, away from the flames. He picked up a chair, and when she saw what he was doing, she grabbed another. “On three.” She nodded. “One…two…three!” They swung their chairs at the windows, breaking the glass. Anthony felt the cold air from outside rush in, and a sudden burst of heat at his back as the hungry flames found the fresh air. Anthony cleared the remaining broken shards from the window frame, and lacing his fingers together, offered the girl a stirrup to lift her up and through the window to safety.

“Get the fire brigade,” he told her.

“I will.”

He boosted her up, the muscles in his arms and chest straining, and then she found purchase and pulled herself up onto the window ledge.

“Wait, this is yours,” he said, and pulled the pin from his pocket. He held it up for her to see.

Relief was visible on her face as she reached for it —

— and was gone. The pin was in his hand. The wall before him now had no window, just the raw wood of the hotel. He sweated in the stifling heat and watched as the dance hall disappeared, collapsing from the perimeter inward, leaving only the burning hotel, and Mike and Harmon calling to him from where they had broken down the back door. He charged through the flames, the searing heat singing his face and his trousers alighting as he ran out the back and into the stable, where Mike tackled him to the ground and Harmon smothered his burning clothes under a horse blanket.

¤

THEY SAT TOGETHER at Mike’s kitchen table in his tiny house in back of the foundry, the smell of smoke still in the air and on their clothes. Anthony passed a hand over his own face and brushed away the singed remains of his eyebrows. His leg was bandaged; the burn hurt, and he had nothing to ease the pain of it, until Mike produced a bottle and placed it at the center of the table with three glasses.

“We three must agree never to speak of what we saw,” Mike said as he poured.

“I’m not even sure what it was I did see,” Harmon said. “I know my business is destroyed. I’m not sure that any sideways vision, shared or not, really matters after that.” Harmon looked darkly into his glass. “Thank you both for trying. Who knows what would have happened had I been alone.”

Anthony lifted his glass to his lips and stopped.

“We all got out. I’m not sure that they all did,” he said.

“They weren’t real. They can’t have been,” Harmon said and poured another finger into his glass.

“I think they were. I think they’re real people, and our fire burned their dance hall down in another place. Or another time.”

Mike considered.

“The place did feel familiar. Like someone had taken the hotel and remade it into something else.”

“For a different purpose, in a different time,” Mike said, sipping his whisky thoughtfully. Anthony put his glass back down, the liquor untouched.

“And if things that happen in our time can jump through to theirs — people may have died tonight.”

“You’ve a peculiar mind, my friend.” Mike drained his glass and stood. “The two of you can stay here tonight. I’ll show you where to bed down.”

“I’m think I’ll stay up a while longer,” Anthony said.

“Suit yourself.” Mike and Harmon left him alone with his thoughts.

He thought again about the fire, the undecipherable letters “U.S.O.,” the eyes of the girl, so like his sister’s — no ghost at all, but a living girl. He sincerely hoped that she still lived, wherever — or whenever — she was.

He pulled the pin from his pocket and read the words again: Temperance Society for Historical Preservation. That’s what we need, he thought. To protect them from us, and maybe us from them. Preserving the history of every time, without interference from the past, or the future.

He poured the contents of his glass back in the bottle and stoppered it. The next steamer would have to leave without him. He would stay and see the mayor brought to justice; he would help rebuild the hotel. And he would find a way to keep the tragedy of the night from happening again.

He turned the pin over and noticed for the first time that there was fine engraving on the back, obscured by the hinged fastener. He unhooked the clasp and held it up to the lamp to catch the light.

The words were etched in a tiny, scrolled hand: Anthony Cardno, Founder.

 ¤¤¤

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer and habitual volunteer. She has been an Assistant Editor for Lightspeed Magazine, occasional narrator for StarShipSofa, audio book reviewer for Audible.com, and remains a co-blogger at Inkpunks.com, a website for aspiring and newly-pro writers. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011, and Armored. She lives in a former Temperance colony on the central coast of California, where she sometimes gets to watch rocket launches with her two amazing daughters, her husband, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Find her online at  inkhaven.net or on Twitter @inkhaven.

“Snow Ninjas of the Himalayas” comic by Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride, and Michael Lee-Harris

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D.J. Kirkbride is launching the adventure/fantasy comic Amelia Cole with co-writer Adam P. Knave and artist Nick Brokenshire this year. He won an Eisner and a Harvey as an editor and a contributing writer for all four volumes of the Popgun comic book anthology from Image Comics. He has also contributed to the Titmouse and Outlaw Territory comic anthologies and is an editor for the SmarterComics line of business books. In addition to his comics work, D.J. went and wrote a book of ninja poetry called Do You Believe in Ninjas? from Creative Guy Publishing. Find him online at  djkirkbride.com or on Twitter @djkirkbride.

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Adam P. Knave is a Eisner and Harvey writer and editor who has written fiction (Crazy Little Things, Strange Angel, and Stays Crunchy in Milk), comics (Agents of the W.T.F. and Things Wrong With Me) and columns for sites such as thefoonote, TwoHeadedCat, PopCultureShock and MamaPop. He is also one of the editors of Image’s Popgun anthology as well as other comic projects. He is launching the adventure/fantasy comic Amelia Cole with co-writer D.J. Kirkbride and artist Nick Brokenshire this year. Find him online at adampknave.com or on Twitter @adampknave.

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Michael Lee Harris is a lifelong comic artist, he loves drawing, long walks on the beach, and unicorns with flaming manes. Find him online at mlharris.carbonmade.com.

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Frank Cvetkovic is the writer and creator of the wildly unpopular webcomic, Punch-Up (Punch-Up.net). He currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where the home teams never win and the rivers occasionally catch fire. Find him on Twitter @gofrankgo.

“Emerald Lakes,” an Atlanta Burns story by Chuck Wendig

THE NAME is a lie; no lake or lakes exist here. Outside it’s just a parking lot, some trees, a well-manicured lawn with the light-and-dark stripes mowed into the grass. And the walls are more a seafoam green than emerald. But life is easy in the Emerald Lakes facility. They don’t ask much here. Don’t miss therapy. Don’t miss rec time. Go to your room when the first tone plays, lights out by second tone.

Oh, and take your pills. Always take your pills.

¤

ATLANTA TAKES her pills. At first.

She’s three weeks into a three-month stint. Eating alone again. It’s not like she’s some freakazoid and nobody wants to talk to her — other girls have come and gone, but the next day she finds a new table by herself and sits there because that’s mostly what she wants to be: by herself.

She spears a too-crispy tater tot and pitches the potato barrel into her mouth. Crunch, crunch. Ick.

All around her, an array of damaged girls sitting at other tables. Atlanta’s a junior in high school, and all these girls are around her age. Fifteen to eighteen. Becky Moynahan — the insides of her forearms reveal a ladder of pink puffy cuts. Missy Eckhart — rented herself out like a DVD and fucked a bunch of older dudes above her parents’ garage. Alice Kucharski — ate all the pills in her mother’s medicine cabinet, spent two weeks in a coma, almost died, didn’t, now she’s here expected to eat the right pills so she stops swallowing the wrong pills. Over there: stole Daddy’s car, ran it into an elementary school. Across the room: stole horse tranquilizers from the farm vet. So many others.

I’m not like them, Atlanta thinks.

By the doorway to the cafeteria she sees one of her counselors. Miss Flaherty. Puffy hamster cheeks. Helmet hair like maybe it came off a LEGO figure. Nice lady. Got a bouncy wobble to her.

She sees Atlanta. Makes a motion with her hand and mouths some words. Atlanta can decipher the intention well enough: Go mingle with the other girls!

Mingle being Miss Flaherty’s word.

Atlanta pretends she doesn’t see the woman. Instead takes a tater tot and drowns it in ketchup, then mustard, then grumpily chews it. Wishes it were a hush puppy, but it’s not. That’s not really a thing they do here. Here being up north. Pennsylvania. And nobody here can make fried chicken worth a lick, either.

Wham.

Someone slams a tray down next to her. Loud enough so that it vibrates the table but not so loud it draws an orderly. It’s Lakesha Spitzer. Lakesha’s what the other kids at school call an Oreo: up here they mean she’s half-black, half-white. Down South it meant something a little different, but whatever. Girl’s got features so severe you could open a can on that chin, could cut glass with those elbows, might lose an eye near those cheekbones. She smiles as she sits down next to Atlanta.

It’s the smile of a fox or maybe a wolf.

“Hey, Lakesha Spitzer,” Atlanta says.

“’Sup, Atlanta Burns,” Lakesha says, but it ain’t friendly. “I hate that name.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Look at you. Sittin’ over here all by your lonesome.” Lakesha grabs one of Atlanta’s tater tots, eats it. “You think you’re a tough-ass bitch.”

“No,” Atlanta says, “I don’t.”

“You frizzy-hair red-headed cracker bee-yotch, I said, you think you’re tough-ass.”

“Okay. Uh-huh. Tough as last night’s chicken.”

Lakesha watches her. “We all know what you did to get in here.”

“I know you know.” She knows, because they talked about in group.

“You think you can take me?”

“What answer you want me to say? No, don’t hit me? Yeah, I can knock your tits off? Lakesha, I just don’t give a shit right now, okay? Why you so mad? Ain’t nothing between us but the air we share.”

Lakesha responds by taking all of what’s on Atlanta’s plate — tots, ketchup, mustard, a dry-yet-somehow-soggy chicken thigh — and, when nobody’s looking, dumping it in Atlanta’s lap.

Then she wipes her messy hand on Atlanta’s sleeve.

“I’m gonna get you yet,” Lakesha says.

And then she’s gone, leaving Atlanta a mess.

¤

PILL-TIME.

The pills aren’t anything heavy-duty. Not for Atlanta, anyway. In the cup they give her she always finds a little pink one shaped like a home plate diamond and a bigger blue one. Like a little Frisbee.

She takes them, she mellows out. It rounds sharp edges. Cork on the end of a fork.

They don’t help her forget what happened.

But they make her not care, and that’s good enough for now.

¤

THEY GIVE THE GIRLS phone privileges once a day.

Make one phone call. No more.

Atlanta hasn’t used her privileges yet. Which means she hasn’t spoken to her mother yet. She’s been by a couple times, her mother. Wanted to have a visit with her daughter.

Atlanta denied the visits. She couldn’t do so outright — she’s still a dependent, after all — so she faked being sick. Not cough-cough sick but I’m-in-the-bathroom-and-can’t-come-out-sorry sick.

It worked. Arlene went home.

Now Atlanta thinks to finally use her phone privileges and so she picks up one of the three phones they have against the wall. She doesn’t call her mother. Instead, she calls her friend, Becky Bartosiewicz — AKA, “Bee.”

Ring, ring, ring.

Click.

Bee’s mother.

Atlanta asks to speak to her friend. Not her only friend, but her best friend, her first friend — at least, first since moving up here from down South.

“I’m sorry, Atlanta,” Bee’s mother says. “She’s, ahh, she’s out.”

“But it’s just past dinner,” Atlanta says. Bee’s never allowed out after dinner on a school night. Chores. Homework. No going out. “Where’s she at?”

Bee’s mother says nothing at first. Atlanta can hear a sound that might be the woman chewing her lip or the inside of her cheek. She must not know how to keep up the ruse because finally she says, “I don’t think she wants to speak to you, Atlanta.”

“Why?”

“I think it’s best you don’t call her anymore.”

“That’s not an answer.”

Bee’s mother hangs up.

That woman’s always been nice as cookies.

Which makes this doubly jarring.

The next day, Atlanta’s back at the phone bank. Waits in line for a half-hour, gets to the phone. Calls Bee’s cell phone. Every kid at school has a phone (some of them have more than one, cycling through disposables the way other kids change clothes), even Bee. Atlanta’s never had one, but whatever.

It rings a couple times, then goes to voicemail.

Atlanta tries again. This time, no ring. Again to voicemail.

She doesn’t bother leaving a message. Instead she just blinks back some tears so fast it’s like they were never there and leaves the phone for the next girl.

¤

LAKESHA’S WATCHING HER during group. Watching her the way a hawk watches a squirrel cross the road.

Right now, Fiona Maguire’s talking, telling some story to all the girls in the chair circle — “First time I let someone close to me it was Petey Woodworth, I let him finger-bang me on a bench up on Dave Hill — that’s Earl Davis Hill, part of Earl Davis Park for those of you who don’t know Frackville real well, but we just call it Dave Hill because I dunno you know whatever it’s funny — and he was nice to me I guess but he probably was the last one that was nice to me and after that it was just a bunch of guys who treated me like I was a, uhh, a, an, uhh, you know —”

Way Fiona talks it’s like she’s got popcorn popping in her mouth. Barely a breath between words. Just that constant rat-tat-tat. Atlanta figures she’s trying to explain something about her eating disorder — Fiona’s a binge eater and a bulimic, her weight going up and down like a bungee jumper — but all Atlanta cares about right now is the way Lakesha’s staring daggers and darts at her.

Miss Flaherty’s doing what she does best: mm-hmming, nodding, steepling those fingers.

Atlanta can’t help it. She interrupts.

“Sorry, sorry,” Atlanta says, waving her hands. “Don’t mean to interrupt. I just need Lakesha to stop staring at me. If I’m being honest, it’s freaking me out. Lakesha: quit it.”

“Girl can look wherever,” Lakesha says. “Ain’t illegal to have eyes.”

“Ladies,” Flaherty says, obviously unaware of what that word means, “Fiona is telling us all a story.”

“No, it’s okay!” Fiona chirps. Then leans in like she’s about to watch a scary movie.

“Whatever,” Atlanta says. Under her breath, she adds: “Stare at me, then.”

“I fuckin’ will.”

“I see that.”

Ladies,” Flaherty says again, this time more insistent. In the back of the room, the orderly on duty — big Hawaiian-looking dude named Henry Ko — tenses up in case he needs to step in.

“You don’t like me looking,” Lakesha says, “then do something about it.”

“I’ve made my peace with it. Go on, do what you like.”

“Ooooh. Girl ain’t so tough without her gun. Is she?” Lakesha crosses her arms, sticks out that icepick of a chin. “Or maybe it’s that I don’t got no nuts to shoot off. That the problem, Ata-lanta?”

Orderly Henry takes a few steps forward when Flaherty gives him the nod.

“I need to go,” Atlanta says. “Can I go?”

“Little bitch,” Lakesha hisses.

Lakesha,” Flaherty says, standing up. Henry moves fast, comes up behind Lakesha like a silent tsunami. He doesn’t touch her. Not yet. But the way his shadow falls tells everyone what’s up. “You will respect the other girls in this circle. You’ve already got an impressive list of demerits on your chart, and I’m about to start adding more. You want more privileges gone, just say the word.”

“Naw,” Lakesha says. “I’m good.”

“Atlanta, you can go back to the rec lounge. But we need to do a private session later.”

“Shit,” Atlanta says. “I mean — yay, okay, sure, fine.”

¤

IT’S ABOUT AN HOUR later that Atlanta sees something. Something that makes all too much sense. There she sits in the rec lounge reading a copy of the Count of Monte Cristo (they don’t have a television here because nobody ever wants to watch the same thing and next thing you know you got a bunch of crazy girls clawing each other’s eyes out because one wants to watch Teen Mom and another wants to watch Seinfeld reruns). Group ends. The girls spill out buzzing with energy like they always do — you talk for an hour about all your problems, and it’s like spraying bug killer down a yellow jacket hole. Stirs everything up a good bit.

Lakesha doesn’t see Atlanta, not yet, but Atlanta sees her.

She comes out and goes into the little mini-fridge and pulls out a Capri-Sun juice bag. Lakesha drains the thing into her mouth with a single squeezing fist and then heads to her room.

But someone else besides Atlanta is watching.

And that someone follows behind Lakesha.

And that’s when Atlanta starts to understand.

Atlanta gets up, thinks to follow along, too. But a throat clears behind her and there stands Flaherty.

“This ain’t a great time,” Atlanta says.

Flaherty clucks her tongue. “Sorry, Miss Burns, but it’s an excellent time for me. C’mon. Let’s talk.”

¤

OF COURSE, Flaherty wants to talk about her mother.

Flaherty’s office is a mess. Papers everywhere. Books, too. A corkboard on the wall is so cluttered with push-pins and receipts and charts that it hurts the eye just looking at it.

“You’re mad at her,” Flaherty says. “It’s okay. You’re allowed to be.”

“Who said I was mad?”

“You have every right to be.”

“That’s good to hear but it doesn’t matter because I’m not mad.”

“Atlanta. Come on now. She invited him in. She let him into your life. And then what happened, happened. I know for sure that I’d be mad.”

Atlanta shrugs. “I must be a higher life form or something then. Like maybe I was reincarnated from a cow and now as a human I have found peace. The Indians — uh, not the tomahawk Indians but the ones with the dots on their heads — believe cows are sacred. So maybe I’m just a cow. A happy peaceful docile cow who ain’t mad at anybody.”

“You shot your step-father,” Flaherty says, those words heavy and solid like a rock dropping into a pond. Or maybe a turd dropping into somebody’s iced tea. Splash.

“I didn’t kill him.”

“No, but you … changed him.”

“Oh well. Maybe he shouldn’t have touched me, then.”

“That does not sound like the attitude of an evolved higher being.”

“Yeah. I guess not.” She takes a pen rolling loose on Flaherty’s desk and pushes it back and forth. “I’m still not mad at her no matter what you say.”

“So stop faking sick and let her come visit you.”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Maybe.”

Or maybe not.

¤

IT’S THE NEXT DAY that Atlanta starts hoarding her pills. It isn’t hard. The other girls do it all the time. Can’t tuck ’em under your tongue because they sometimes check there. What you do is offer a little misdirection — Atlanta likes to crumple the cup because it’s noisy and it draws the eye to her hand and not her face — and while they’re looking that way she uses her tongue to tuck the pills in the back of her mouth. Sandwiched between the inside of her cheek and her bottom gums.

Then she hides them in her bra.

¤

OVER THE NEXT couple weeks she keeps an eye on Lakesha when Lakesha’s not keeping an eye on her. Shadows her after group or meal-time. It’s not every day that she sees what she sees. Maybe every third or fourth day. But it’s not just a one-time thing. It’s often enough to confirm what Atlanta’s afraid of. And now she gets it. She really gets it. Dangit.

¤

ATLANTA’S IN the bathroom washing her hands when Lakesha catches her.

“You been watchin’ me,” Lakesha says.

“What’s good for the goose.”

“What’s good for the goose what?”

“It’s a saying. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Atlanta shrugs. “I don’t really know what geese have to do with anything, but it means that you’ve been watching me so now I’ve been watching you. Quid pro quo, tit for tat, blah blah blah.”

“You think you’re so smart.”

“Smart enough to figure out what’s going on.”

“The fuck you mean?”

“I mean you and that orderly are messing around.” Not Henry. The other one on day duty. They call him Pecker because his last name is Packer and everyone thinks it’s funny. But suddenly it isn’t funny at all. “But the way he looks at you and follows you I don’t think it’s exactly mutual.”

Lakesha chews on her lower lip the way you might gnaw on a strip of beef jerky. Like maybe she’s trying to draw blood so as to distract her mind from thinking whatever it is she’s thinking. But the look on the girl’s face tells Atlanta she’s right. And the way Lakesha’s hands ball into fists tells her that’s maybe not such a good thing.

“You’re fuckin’ dead,” Lakesha says. With the back of her foot she slides the trashcan in front of the door. Not enough to prevent anyone from coming in, but it’ll slow them down, give some warning at least. And the bathroom is one of the two places in this whole facility that doesn’t have a camera in it. Here and in the girls’ bedrooms. State law and privacy legislation means they can’t watch girls in a place like this. Prison, yes. Mental health facility, no. “Saying shit like that about me.”

“You know you’re not pissed off at me. But you want to take it out on me, go ahead.”

Lakesha grabs her. Jacks Atlanta against the wall next to the towel dispenser.

And then she does nothing.

Just waits. Breathing. Nostrils flaring. Chewing that lip.

They wait there so long, Atlanta starts getting a little bored.

Finally, Lakesha says, “Is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“What you did. To get in here.”

“It’s true.”

She lets go of Atlanta.

Deep breath.

Then it comes out, like puke.

“Packer comes after me every couple nights,” she says. She looks down at the floor as she explains how he sneaks in right before the shift change. How he tells her not to undress, but just to open her mouth. How he moans and grinds his teeth and pops his knuckles as he pops his cookies. “I tried fighting him. But he’s strong. And he says that he’ll report me if I don’t do what he says. He reports me for anything, they’ll bump me up to juvie.” She finally looks up. “You can’t tell anybody about this.”

“I won’t.”

“You tell anybody, I’ll fuck you up.”

“I said I won’t and I won’t.”

“Yeah. All right.”

And that’s how they leave it. But Atlanta hasn’t really left it at all.

¤

SHE SITS in her room, palms sweaty, heart going like a hummingbird trapped in someone’s pocket, and it’s then that she smells the stink of gunpowder hanging in the air — it’s not there, not really, but she hasn’t been taking those pills and now the feeling is starting to come back to her.

The memory of it crawls up inside her. The bang of the gun. The scream afterward. His and then hers. Blood in a dark room not red but black — a deeper dark against the shadows of night.

And here she wants to do it all again.

Around midnight, the door opens. Packer the Pecker comes in. He’s greasy, pale but for his pink cheeks, got long arms like monkey limbs framing his pooched-out gut.

He waves a little piece of paper around. “I got your note.”

“Good,” she says, forcing the word out — it comes out dry and cracked as the desert ground. Her hands are shaking. She wills them to stop. They do, but only because she presses her palms so hard into her knees she can feel the sweat soaking through.

Packer looks around, and laughs nervously. An unexpected social awkwardness rises. “So. Ahhh. How you wanna do this?”

“I guess I’ll … ” Again her voice dries up. Speak, talk, say something, say anything. “Guess I’ll get down on my knees.” He reaches for his zipper but she stops him by saying, “Can I have a kiss first?”

He smiles, a gee-shucks-gosh kind of look like he thinks she’s secretly sweet on him, and he says, “Well, sure, okay, if that makes it feel special for you.”

“My throat’s just a little dry,” she says. Not a lie. “Hold on.”

Atlanta reaches for a nearby cup, pretends to drink from it. Then she crunches the cup.

She stretches up on her tippy-toes and goes to kiss him.

He opens his mouth. His tongue seeks hers out.

And she spits a fusillade of pills down his throat.

Gotcha, you girl-touching sonofabitch.

Or so she thinks. He shoves her away and starts gagging. Reaches into the back of his throat with his own fat-tipped fingers and coughs loud and sharp —

The pills drop out of his mouth, glommed together with a sheen of saliva.

It didn’t work.

Oh, no.

“You crazy little fuck,” he says, still hawking and spitting to make sure he got them all.

This is it, she thinks. Her one shot, poorly played. And now she’s in a room with a rapist molester asshole and he’s strong and angry and she doesn’t have her shotgun and nobody will see anything because they can’t put cameras inside the girls’ rooms, only out in the hallway …

Only out in the hallway.

Packer reaches for her —

Atlanta pulls away.

Then punches herself in the face. Four knuckles smash hard into her nose and upper lip and teeth and the black behind her eyes erupts in a blizzard of bright white snowflakes —

“What the hell?” Packer says, taking a step back just in case he gets a little of the crazy on him. He says it again like he’s expecting an answer: “Oh, what the hell?”

Atlanta tastes blood. Feels it crawling down her nostrils, too, dripping from a nose that pulses and pounds like a kick drum.

He reaches for her one more time.

One last time.

She spits a mist of blood in his face, then throws open the door to her room and runs down the hall.

He comes after her — mad like a hornet, hungry like a mosquito, driven to the brink by the blue balls in his pants and the taste of blood on his lips, and as he rounds the corner, his face a mask of contorted rage, Atlanta falls to the floor, fake-sobbing and screaming, putting on the best performance she can.

He skids to a halt.

It’s then he realizes:

The hallway has cameras.

And he just chased a girl out of her room. Her face bleeding, his face red with her blood.

Packer turns the other way and bolts.

¤

IT’S ENOUGH. It gets him not just fired but brought up on charges. The cameras catch everything. Atlanta has to sign statements. Maybe even go to court — though, given how sensitive the situation, Miss Flaherty says that it shouldn’t come to that. Atlanta has to sit in on extra one-on-one sessions with Flaherty, which isn’t ideal. But that’s a small price to pay. At least Flaherty’s nice.

The other girls like Atlanta even more, now. (Another small price to pay.) They think she’s some kind of bad-ass. She wonders if the girls back at school will feel the same way.

Atlanta sees Lakesha only in passing. They don’t say anything to one another, but the next day Atlanta gets a note under her door: Thanks for keeping an eye on me. –L

¤

IT’S TWO DAYS LATER that Lakesha stabs another girl. Yolanda Bruin gets handsy at lunch and Lakesha sticks her in the offending hand with a fork. They have to drag Lakesha away kicking and screaming. It takes three orderlies, including Henry the big Hawaiian.

When it’s all over, Atlanta tells Miss Flaherty:

“I think I want to see my Mom now.”

Flaherty nods and makes the call.

¤¤¤

Chuck Wendig is equal parts novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. His “vampire-in-zombieland” novel, Double Dead, is out now, and the first two Miriam Black novels (Blackbirds and Mockingbird) release in 2012. He has several e-books on writing available, the newest being 500 Ways to be a Better Writer. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with wife, dog, and newborn progeny and you can find him dispensing profane and probably unwise writing advice  at his website,  terribleminds.com, and on  Twitter @ChuckWendig.

“To the Moon” by Ken Liu

LONG AGO, when you were just a baby, we went to the Moon.

Summer nights in Beijing were brutal: hot, muggy, the air thick as the puddles left on the road after a shower, covered in iridescent patches of gasoline. We felt like dumplings being steamed, slowly, inside the room we were renting.

There was nowhere to go. Outside, the sidewalk was filled with the droning of air conditioners from neighbors who had them and the cackling of TVs at full volume from neighbors who hadn’t. Add your crying to the mix, and it was enough to drive anyone crazy. I would carry you out on my shoulders, back in, and then out again, begging you to sleep.

One night, I returned home after another day of fruitless petitioning at the Palace of Mandarins, having gotten no closer to avenging your mother. You sensed my anger and despair and cried heartily in sympathy. The world seemed so oppressive and dark that I wanted to join you, join the sound and the fury that filled the mad world.

Then the Moon passed low overhead, ripe, golden, round, like a shaobing fresh out of the oven. And I tied you to my back with one of the scarves your mother left behind, and began to climb the pagoda tree by the side of the road that somehow survived all the construction and reconstruction, all the road-widening and demolition, all the pollution and apathy.

The climb was long and arduous. The Moon seemed close from the ground but it kept on receding as we progressed up the tree. We had to climb through clouds, through flocks of wild starlings and sparrows, through wind and rain that threatened to tear us from the tree, until finally, we were at the very tip of the tallest swaying branch, and then, just as the Moon passed right overhead, I reached up and hoisted us onto it.

It was wonderful on the Moon: cool air, clean skies, as quiet as a library. You stopped crying as soon as we landed, looking around with your eyes wide open like when we first got to Beijing and you saw all those cars for the first time.

The Moon people were beautiful and polite. The women wore dresses that flowed and shimmered like water, and the men walked in shoes that gleamed and shone like the paint on new cars. Everyone spoke like they were poets from the Tang Dynasty. In teahouses made of green jade and white nephrite, they drank tea brewed from dew and whispered and laughed at each other’s wit. They ate cakes flavored with sweet osmanthus, prepared by the goddess Chang’e herself. Even the walls felt cool to the touch, and you could see why they didn’t need anything as unrefined as air conditioning.

But they were also haughty. They didn’t want us to be there, poor peasants from the countryside. They thought we didn’t belong. We were loud and made the place dirty.

“Why don’t you go home?” they asked.

So we had to find ways to trick them.

¤

SALLY RUSH SMILED, uneasily, at her client.

The Chinese man across the coffee shop table was in his forties: short and wiry frame, blue dress shirt wrinkled and faded from too many washes, shoes scuffed beyond hope. His unkempt hair was turning white in patches, and he didn’t bother shaving off the straggly wisps on his upper lips and chin. The coffee on the table remained black and untouched while he drank tea from a thermos. Wenchao Zhang looked like he had just gotten off the boat, but the way he appraised her was cool, calm, calculated.

Sally looked into his dark brown eyes and expressionless face — she didn’t want to sound racist, but — she found him inscrutable.

His daughter, a girl of about six, sat next to him. Sally smiled at her, and the child smiled back, her eyes wide open with curiosity. In contrast to the father’s impenetrable face, Sally thought she could read every thought that went through the girl’s head.

She held out her hand but Wenchao ignored it, continuing to scrutinize her.

Maybe he doesn’t know English well, she thought. She turned to the girl.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Sally. I’ll be helping you and your dad. I’m your lawyer.”

“Hello,” the girl said. And she blushed so that Sally knew she thought Sally was pretty. “You can call me Vinnie.”

Sally decided that the girl with the American name also had American eyes.

“How will you help?” Vinnie asked.

Sally considered this. “My job is to help people tell stories. If I do a good enough job, you win.”

Vinnie nodded, smiling.

Then the father spoke. “Did you read my story?” His accent was heavy, but she had no trouble understanding him. He spoke carefully and calmly, with no hint of desperation.

“Yes,” Sally said. His story had shocked her, outraged her, and she found herself slightly disappointed that he didn’t seem more, well, heroic, didn’t carry the signs of his suffering more visibly. She wanted to save him, this courageous little Chinese man who had given up so much for his faith, for freedom.

“You’re very brave,” she added.

“Have you done this much?” he asked.

“No.” She blushed.

Sally had been a good student in a great law school, and she picked Widmar Eaton Lafever & Tuck out of a dozen law firms — all of them offering her equally unbelievable salaries — because she liked the senior woman associate who had interviewed her and made Widmar sound so wonderful (except that the associate had already quit — “for personal reasons” — by the time Sally started in September, so maybe that wasn’t such a great way to pick a firm).

“Then how do you know my story will work?” he asked.

“I —” she was stuck. This wasn’t going at all the way she had envisioned it. “Your facts match the statutory definition of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership …” Her voice trailed off. The legal phrases sounded abstract, inadequate to the task.

Actually being a lawyer, Sally found, was very different from being a law student. She had been so good at teasing apart hypothetical fact patterns, marshaling them into intricate legal arguments, bolstering them with high-minded principle and policy, and dressing them up in dazzling rhetorical flourishes, but she was completely unprepared for the realities of commercial litigation.

“Ah,” Wenchao said. And Sally understood his tone perfectly. “That is why you’re free.”

There were no neat fact patterns at Widmar Eaton. It was her job to assemble facts out of warehouses full of boxes of paper produced by corporations intent on drowning each other with legal bills. She found that she was utterly unqualified to do her job.

To train her and to make her feel better about her meaningless drudgery, the firm assigned her to pro bono asylum cases. She was supposed to practice on these refugees, who could not sue her firm for malpractice, until she learned enough so that she wouldn’t mess up on the firm’s real clients.

Sally was furious with herself. She was supposed to be confident, in charge, the one guiding him.

“Tell me about yourself.” His voice softened.

“Excuse me?”

“My dad likes stories,” Vinnie said.

“Tell me the story of how you became a lawyer,” Wenchao said. “So I can see how good you’ll be at helping me tell my story.”

¤

ALL HER LIFE, Sally believed in clarity. When her friends argued, she always knew whose side to take. There was always someone who was more right than the other, even if no one was as right as herself.

When she was ten, she saw the maid, Luisa, packing away some of the leftovers from dinner into her purse.

“Please,” Luisa begged. “It’s for my daughter.”

Luisa showed Sally a picture of a little girl about Sally’s age. The girl in the picture had dark hair and dark eyes, and she wasn’t smiling at the camera. “She gets hungry at night. Please don’t tell your father.”

When Sally informed her father of what she had found, he looked both embarrassed and sad.

“If you saw the little girl going hungry,” he asked Sally, “would you not share your dinner with her?”

“Of course I would.”

Her father looked relieved. “That’s good.” He seemed to think the discussion was over.

“You have to let Luisa go,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I might choose to share my dinner. Stealing is wrong.”

He looked startled. Then, gently, he tried to reason with her, “sometimes it’s hard to tell what is really right, and we have to do what feels true.”

“No,” she said. “It’s always possible to tell what is right by following the rules.”

¤

“I’LL FIGHT as hard as I can for you,” Sally said. “But with your story, the officer will have to do the right thing. It’s the law.”

Wenchao smiled at her for the first time. “You have strong beliefs.”

“Not as strong as yours.”

¤

SALLY HAD SPENT two whole days prepping for Wenchao’s interview at the Joanne Austin Federal Building. She read through everything in his application packet multiple times until she could practically recite his story from memory.

She was just about to launch into a lecture about the state of human rights abuses in the People’s Republic of China, about religious oppression and the importance of freedom, when the asylum officer shook his head and told her to stop.

“He has to tell his own story.”

He was blond, pale, and bored. Tensely, Sally watched his face, seeking any hint of Wenchao’s chances.

“Begin,” he said to Wenchao.

¤

IN ORDER TO NOT be found, we hid in the shadows of the Moon’s craters. Sometimes we buried ourselves in the dust to blend in.

But one day, Monkey, the greatest of heroes, came to us.

“What are you doing?” he asked. “Are you a man or a worm?”

“If they find me,” I said. “They’ll send me away.”

The people of the Moon did not like it when people from the Earth decided to stay on their own, even if they were willing to polish the jade floors and wash the silk dresses, the sort of work that no one from the Moon wanted to do. They preferred to only invite people from the Earth that they deemed worthy, one way or another.

“No one knows you here,” Monkey said. “You can be whoever you want.”

That was easy for Monkey to say. He had studied with the greatest Buddhist monks and Daoist sages. He knew eighty-one transformations and overcame eighty-one demons on his trip to visit the Buddha. He could pick a single hair from his body and turn it into a weapon.

“Not all of us can be like you,” I tried to explain. “You defied a hundred thousand soldiers of the Jade Emperor. You freed yourself after a thousand years of imprisonment under a mountain. But me, I’m just a weak man trying to do the best for his little girl.”

“Nonsense,” Monkey said. “All those stories about me? They’re just stories. Why not tell a story of your own?”

¤

IT IS HARD to be a Christian in China. Impossible, almost.

Pastor Chen smuggled in our Bibles on the bottom of his suitcase by covering them with a layer of Louis Vuitton bags. The customs agent opened the suitcase, laughed and kept a few of the purses for himself, and then waved him through.

Can you obtain an affidavit from Pastor Chen?

I cannot. I don’t know where he is now.

Where was I? Oh, right. For three years we, the congregation of the village of Sangulu, prayed in the basement of Pastor Chen’s house, and we saved, until we had enough to build our church.

We did as much of the work as possible ourselves. It was a modest structure: brick walls, concrete floor, a wooden steeple my uncle carved by hand, ink paintings of the scenes from the life of Christ done by my wife. And all of us took turns white-washing it, till it looked just like the American churches we saw on TV. The floor was uneven and the benches inside were hard and plain. But it was a House of the Lord.

When it was done, my wife and I and Pastor Chen and the whole congregation stood and looked at it, and we were so proud. My wife held our daughter, not even a month old then, and showed her the place where she would come to know God.

What was the date on which construction was completed?

It’s in the folder —

I want you to tell me the date. Don’t look in the folder.

— March 15th, six years ago.

Do you have any proof?

There is a picture in the folder with the date on it.

On the third day after it was complete, three black jeeps drove into the village and stopped in front of the church, and men wearing dark glasses jumped out of them. The last man to get out was someone I knew: the Communist Party Secretary of our township.

What is his name?

Guo Jia. I can write it out for you.

“What is this?” he asked, glancing at the church contemptuously.

“A house,” Pastor Chen said.

The Party Secretary took off his dark glasses and looked at him. “You are the cult leader, aren’t you?”

Standing straight and proud, Pastor Chen nodded. “I believe in Christ.”

The Party Secretary laughed, and his men took out sledgehammers, crowbars, cans of gasoline.

Pastor Chen tried to block their path to the church. “The Constitution of the People’s Republic guarantees religious — ”

One of the men punched him in the stomach, and Pastor Chen was on the ground, gasping. The man walked closer and kicked him in the head.

“The Constitution does not shield illegal cults,” the Party Secretary said.

The men attacked our church, tearing apart its walls, smashing the windows, cracking the concrete floor, and pouring gasoline over everything. One went around to tear my wife’s paintings of Christ into scraps of paper.

“Stop!” my wife shouted. She handed our baby to a neighbor, jumped on the back of the man with the gasoline can, and tried to scratch his eyes out. He screamed and threw her off, turned around, and stomped his boot down on her stomach. She gurgled and remained still.

Her death certificate is in the file.

I went crazy then. I got one good punch in before all the others fell on me, and all I remember was a lot of pain, and then nothing.

I woke up in the township hospital. I had six broken ribs, two broken legs and a broken arm, a punctured lung, and a concussion.

Do you have any evidence of this? A hospital bill? Medical reports?

No. Nothing like that.

Can you get it from the hospital?

The town government runs the hospital. If I try to ask them for evidence, they will laugh at me and then lock me in the psychiatry department.

You have to provide some proof.

I can show you the scars. Here, I’ll lift my shirt.

Sally, are you all right? It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt any more.

Stop that. Pull your shirt down. These scars don’t have dates. They cannot be authenticated.

¤

“WORKING LATE?” Jordan Cameron, a partner known for not being an asshole to young associates, stuck his head inside Sally’s office.

“My pro bono case. We have to go back for another hearing this week.”

“Asylum?”

Sally nodded.

Cameron came in and sat down across the desk. “May I?”

Sally slid the file over to him. Cameron flipped through the papers quickly but methodically. His expression never changed.

“What do you think?” Sally asked, swallowing nervously.

He shrugged. “Standard story. It’s pretty good, but not great. There’s not much you can do. Don’t stress over it.”

Cameron saw Sally’s face and sighed. “If they’re from Africa, the men always say that they’re escaping genocide, and the women always say that soldiers want to rape them and mutilate their genitals. If they’re from Central America, they’re always running from gangs entwined with the police. If they’re from China, the women are always being forced to have abortions by the government, and the men are always Christians or dissidents.”

“These things happened,” Sally said. She was so angry that she forgot that she was raising her voice with a partner. “They’re not just stories.”

“Yes, to someone. But not necessarily your client.”

Sally bit her lips to stop herself from saying something she would regret.

Cameron stood up.

“Go home, Sally. All asylum applicants lie, and you don’t want to examine their stories too closely. Even if some horrible things did happen to them, they have to compete with the stories told by economic immigrants who want to avoid deportation by lying. So they embellish their stories with more terrible details, sculpt them in ways they think we want, and we believe them because their stories confirm for us how orderly, how safe, and how much better we are than the rest of the world. They assure us that we’re still exceptional.”

¤

SALLY DROVE ALONG the road, anxiously watching the small dot on her GPS.

She stopped in front of an old triple-decker badly in need of a new coat of paint.

There was no answer to the doorbell, but when she leaned her ear against the door, she could hear voices behind it. She tried the doorknob. It twisted with a creak and the door opened.

The first-floor apartment door was open, and through it she could see that the living room was filled with chattering Chinese people sitting around a stack of paper boxes in the center, on a stained and tattered couch, on metal folding chairs, on the floor.

Some of the talk was in English, and Sally caught a few stray phrases:

… memorize the dates …

… say that he was a Communist. They want that …

… one is too few; three abortions …

The chatter died down as one by one, the gathering turned to look at her.

Sally saw that many had folders full of papers in front of them. The shape and color of the folders were familiar to her.

Wenchao got up from behind the crowd, and wordlessly took Sally by her elbow. They went outside, closing the door behind them.

¤

“YOU MEAN the stories aren’t true?” I asked.

Monkey, the rebel who never gave up, the adventurer who always had more fight in him, laughed, loud and long, like the song of a summer cicada. The Moon people on the jade pavilions on the horizon looked over in our direction in annoyance.

“When I was a boy,” I said, “your stories made me believe that anything was possible. I want to tell your stories to my daughter, so that she would also have hope.” I showed you, all bundled up and asleep, to Monkey. “But now you’re telling me that the stories were lies.”

“I didn’t say that,” Monkey said. “Stories, all stories, are true only when you believe them to be true.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look at the people of the Moon,” Monkey said. He pointed to the small figures of the beautifully dressed men and women drinking jasmine tea and reciting poetry in the distance. “They claim to be descended from the immortals of Penglai and the sages of Xiyu. Look how proud they are of their poetry, of their art, of their exalted land.”

“They’re indeed exceptional.”

“They’re because they believe themselves to be.”

I looked at Monkey, not understanding.

“How do you think they came to be on the Moon?”

I shook my head.

Monkey laughed again. “You’re not the first to climb up the pagoda tree, and you won’t be the last. You’re not the first to tell a story about yourself, and you won’t be the last. Welcome to the Moon, a land of tricksters, storytellers, hustlers, dreamers, and liars. You’re the ones who make this place so wondrous.”

He nodded at you then, still asleep in my arms. “Your story will be true when she believes it to be true.”

¤

“WE HELP each other.”

“To lie!” Sally was beside herself. “How could you?”

They were sitting together, side by side, on a bench in a small park. Wenchao looked at her. “We’re just trying to play by the rules. Everybody has a story, but you only want to hear certain stories.”

“I want to hear the truth!”

Wenchao laughed, a laugh as loud and long as a singing summer cicada. The noise startled the sparrows in the tree near them. “Ask me what you want.”

“Are you even a Christian?”

“No.”

Sally closed her eyes. The worst part of this was admitting that Cameron was right.

“Was the death certificate for your wife real?”

“Yes.”

“Stop answering with yes or no. Tell me what happened.”

“Why does it matter? You won’t be my lawyer any more anyway.”

“It matters to me.”

Wenchao took a drag on his cigarette.

“That picture of the church you saw was real. Only it wasn’t a church, it was the house I built for my wife and new daughter.”

Sally shook her head in confusion.

“I’ve always liked the way small churches looked in American movies: so safe and clean. I thought, why not build a house like that?

“But then some Taiwanese developers wanted the land my house was on for a new factory, and the Party Secretary came to me and told me to leave. I refused. He told me that the land didn’t belong to me anyway. It always belonged to the people, and he was speaking for the people.

“Everything else I told you was true. They came to smash up my house, and they killed my wife. The scars I showed you were real. After I got out of the hospital, I went to court, and the judge laughed in my face and put me in jail. They let me out after three months, and I went to Beijing to petition for justice. They caught me and brought me back to town and put me in a psychiatric hospital and pumped me full of drugs. I escaped and went to Beijing again, and this time I used every penny of money I had in the world to buy my daughter and myself passage here. That’s my story.”

“But that’s horrible,” Sally said. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth? You really were persecuted.”

“But not ‘on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,’” Wenchao quoted, and took a long drag on the cigarette. “I believed that I should have my own house that no one can take away from me, that was all. The world is full of terrible stories, but the laws only deem some worthy of being heard.”

¤

ONE DAY, about a year after Luisa was fired, Sally saw her downtown, waiting for a bus. Luisa looked older, more tired. Her dress was dirty and wrinkled.

Sally did not go up to say hi, to ask about her daughter or her new job. She avoided looking at Luisa and walked away.

¤

“WHAT WILL you do?” Wenchao asked. Sally looked back at him through the window of her car.

“I don’t know yet,” Sally said. And she thought about all the rules that she was supposed to follow: the immigration laws, the rules of ethics, the noble-sounding principles of the profession. It’s always possible to follow the rules.

“Let’s go,” Vinnie said, dragging her father away from her car. “Finish telling me that story about Monkey.”

A few steps later, she turned to wave at Sally. “When I grow up, I want to be like you, telling stories for a living.”

Sally watched until they disappeared around the corner.

¤¤¤

Besides being a writer, Ken Liu is also a translator, programmer, and lawyer. His fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, among other places. He lives with his family near Boston. He and his wife are collaborating on their first novel. Find him online at kenliu.name or on Twitter @kyliu99.

Free stories from Issue One

While we are running our Issue Three Kickstarter, we wanted to share the terrific stories from Issue One. Only one of them has been available online for free before. If you like what you read, please consider backing the Kickstarter or buying an issue or a subscription.

We’ll be releasing the stories every few days over the next week or so, in the order they appeared in the magazine:

“To the Moon” by Ken Liu 

“Emerald Lakes” by Chuck Wendig

“Snow Ninja of the Himalayas” by Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride, and Michael Lee Harris

“Temperance” by Christie Yant 

“Press Enter to Execute” by Tobias Buckell

“Scarred” by Damien Walters Grintalis

Violet carved her hate into her flesh one name at a time.

Her skin was riddled with scars, some barely visible, others dark and ruddy. The oldest, the first name, was on her right ankle, above the knobby bone. It revealed a halting progress, with many gaps in between the lines and curves.

He suffered for a long time.

Anthony looked up from his dinner plate and smiled. “This is really good, babe.”

“Thank you. I wanted to make something special for tonight.”

The cooking classes were her idea. Anthony had been worried about the knives, of course, although he hadn’t said anything with his mouth. Only with his eyes. The first time his hand had touched one of her scars, he’d paused, his eyes curious. Concerned.

She’d looked down at her hands. “I had a … problem when I was younger, but I’m better now.”

“What do they mean?”

“Nothing,” she’d said. “Nothing at all.”

A breeze blew in through the open windows, fluttering the curtains, and the late spring air was heavy with the scent of flowers. Children’s voices called out and their neighbor’s dog barked several times, a deep, growling sort of bark. She and Anthony grimaced at the same time, caught each other, and smiled.

“Happy anniversary, babe,” he said.

“Happy anniversary.”

She smiled and twisted the ring on her finger. The year had passed so quickly, yet seemed a lifetime. Anthony had asked her to marry him on their sixth date. Crazy, perhaps, because they’d barely known each other, but she’d said yes without a second thought. Three weeks later, they were standing hand in hand in the courthouse promising forever, a promise she intended to keep.

Mrs. Anthony Cardno was a good person.

But Violet isn’t and you know it.

That wasn’t true. She was a good person. Sometimes she got … lost. That was all. But it was all in the past. She was better now. So much better.

With Anthony softly snoring in the bed beside her, Violet clasped her hands together on her chest and recited the names. Too many names.

“Please forgive me,” she whispered when she was finished.

She rolled onto her side and touched Anthony’s cheek, his skin soft, yet rough at the same time, beneath her fingertips. The sleeve of her pajama top slipped up to her elbow, revealing the edge of a name: Sabrina. Her best friend in grade school. Violet closed her eyes.

It wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. She hadn’t known.

Liar.

She woke before Anthony and padded down to the kitchen to make coffee. From the kitchen window, she saw the next-door neighbor’s children, already up and about, kicking around a red rubber ball. She smiled and touched her belly. Two months ago, she’d thrown out her birth control pills. Nothing had happened yet, but they were both young. There was plenty of time. Anthony would be a wonderful father. And she would be a good mother even if the baby didn’t sleep well or cried all the time.

“You were always crying when you were a baby,” her mother had said time and again. “Drove me crazy. You’d cry if you were hungry or full, wet or dry, it didn’t matter. It was like you came out hating the world and wanted everyone to know it.” Her mother would tap her cigarette into her overflowing ashtray, pat Violet on the bum, and smile. “Grab me another beer, okay?”

When her mother had married her stepfather, Violet had hoped that everything would be okay. Now she had a real family. Her mother would be happy, wouldn’t drink so much, and wouldn’t forget to go food shopping or pay the electric bill. But her stepfather had only made things worse. So much worse.

But we took care of him, didn’t we?

No, no matter what he’d done, he didn’t deserve what happened. No one did.

Long after the sun had faded from the sky, she and Anthony took a walk through the neighborhood. The children and dogs had been collected for the night, and lights behind windows winked out one by one. His hand gave hers a quick squeeze.

“Next year we’ll go away someplace for our anniversary, how does that sound? Somewhere with a beach and blue water.”

“And fruity drinks with paper umbrellas?”

“Absolutely.”

He pulled her into his arms and kissed her softly beneath the glow of a streetlamp. Then they heard the shout. She jumped, pulled away, and scanned the street. No one else was outside. The shout came again, more muffled this time, from a small green house with a swing on the front porch.

Anthony took a step toward the house. Violet shook her head.

“Don’t.”

“But if someone is hurt … ”

A voice snapped in anger, followed by a whip-quick sound that Violet knew all too well — a slap.

“Let’s go back home.”

Anthony gave the house a long look. Violet tugged his hand.

“Come on. It’s not our business.”

Violet was collecting her mail from the mailbox at the end of the yard when a dark-haired woman and a little girl of perhaps four or five in a yellow dress and white ruffled socks walked past. She looked up just in time to see the bruise darkening the skin of the woman’s cheek. Violet’s hands clenched into fists. The little girl pulled her thumb out of her mouth and offered up a wide, innocent smile.

You can make things better.

No, it wasn’t her fight. She didn’t know them at all. She watched them turn onto the sidewalk leading up to the green house.

But you could if you really wanted to. Just one more time. Help them, then I’ll go away.

The voice whispered so sweetly, but it lied. Oh, how it lied.

Violet pulled out a knife to slice tomatoes for a salad and paused. The overhead light glinted in the metal. She closed her eyes and saw the little girl’s face. The woman’s bruise.

You can fix it.

“Leave me alone,” she whispered.

Two years after her mother had married her stepfather, the voice spoke to her for the first time. Eight-year-old Violet had been sitting in the corner of her bedroom with the door locked, wiping tears away, with a fresh set of bruises on her upper arms.

“I hate you,” she’d whispered. Over and over again.

I can help you, a voice said.

She’d jumped up, stifling a shout, looked under the bed, checked inside the closet and out the window. The voice had laughed softly.

I won’t hurt you.

She’d covered her ears. Buried her face in the pillow.

Trust me. It will be easy. So easy.

It had whispered and whispered, and eventually her hands had dropped from her ears. It had told her what to do, and when the house had fallen silent, Violet had tiptoed to the kitchen and pulled out a small knife.

Good girl. That’s a very good girl.

She’d closed her eyes when she had touched the blade to her ankle, and the pain had not been nearly as bad as she’d imagined it would be. Beneath the copper bright tang of blood, she’d smelled something dark and terrible like the sweet stink of roadkill or the scummy water left in a vase filled with dead flowers. She’d felt something light brush against her skin, opened her eyes, and saw a shadow flickering across the floor. One quick flicker and then it was gone.

She didn’t know then what it would do.

A few days later, her stepfather had collapsed in the back yard. The doctors had called it a rare, aggressive cancer, but Violet had known they were wrong. The malignant cells hadn’t eaten him away from the inside. Her hate had.

Let me out.

She dropped the knife back into the drawer and slammed it shut. It bounced back open with a little jingle, offering her a hint of the silverware within.

“No!”

She took several long deep breaths. She would not do it. Not now. Not ever. She recited the names. Once. Twice.

“I am sorry, I am so sorry.”

Words. Useless words. Her stepfather had said them so many times.

He wasn’t really sorry. You weren’t either.

Standing in front of the green house, Violet noticed the white letter sticking out of the mailbox. She stepped closer, casting quick glances over both shoulders. The letter was out far enough for her to make out a name: Kevin Turner.

With her mouth set into a thin line, she turned and walked back to her own house, the name a heavy weight inside. She couldn’t hate him. She didn’t even know him.

You could if you wanted to. He’s just like your stepfather.

She didn’t know that. The woman could have fallen down. How many times had she done something stupid, something that —

Excuses, excuses. You know you want to. That’s why you looked at the letter.

No, it wasn’t that way at all. She wouldn’t do anything. She’d promised to leave it all behind. For Anthony’s sake. For her own sake.

Sabrina Ogden had been her best friend all through grade school. In their first year of middle school, Violet had spoken of what her stepfather had done. Sabrina had told another friend who told another and on and on. The whispers had followed Violet through the hallways. The shame had burned like a brand.

When the dark voice had whispered, Violet had tried to hold it in, but she hadn’t been strong enough.

The doctors hadn’t been able to cure Sabrina either.

Tears burned in Violet’s eyes.

If she’d been your friend, she wouldn’t have told anyone. If she hadn’t —

“Violet?”

She jumped and the paring knife in her hands clattered into the kitchen sink. She stared at the blade for several long moments, her mouth dry. She didn’t remember opening the silverware drawer. Did she?

You know you want to. I’ve been waiting for so long.

She slipped on a smile and turned around.

“You looked like you were a million miles away,” Anthony said.

“Sorry, I was woolgathering.”

She went to him and rested her head on his chest.

In the dark, she stared up at the ceiling. Recited the names.

Joey, who’d tried to take advantage of her at a party in high school. Sarah, that same year, who’d blackened her eye and fractured her wrist for telling the principal about the smoking in the bathroom. Christopher. Laura. Matt. Jake, who’d broken her heart. Peter, who’d shattered it. Ryan, who’d promised to love her forever. He hadn’t deserved to die such a terrible death.

And so many more. She wanted to forget them all, but she held tight, fearing she would.

My fault, my fault. All of them, she thought.

Every time she’d carved a name, the darkness reappeared, a slithering shadow she could only see as a human-shaped haze in the air. Did they see it come for them? Did they taste its fate in their breath?

And did they know she’d sent it?

Just one more time. Please.

“Stop it, stop it, stop it.”

She didn’t want to hurt anyone. She was a good person now. She was.

Violet saw the little girl again, playing in the front yard of the green house. She was digging in the dirt with a stick, singing softly to herself. When she heard Violet’s footsteps, she looked up and Violet saw bruises on her forearm, four finger-shaped marks. Violet’s hands curled into fists. Her heart beat heavy in her chest.

We can help her.

No, it was not her problem. But her steps were heavy on her walk back home.

An image of the girl’s bruises floated in Violet’s mind, and her fingers tightened on her open book.

One more time. I promise I’ll go away.

Why wouldn’t it just leave her alone?

You know you want to help her.

But not in that way. She would call Child Protective Services in the morning. They could help the little girl.

What if they don’t?

The words on the page swam into a blur. She recited the names. Ran the tip of her finger over the edge of a scar. Recited the names again.

Her cup of guilt was deep, the brew within thick and bitter. No matter how many swallows, she could never drink it all down. Not in one lifetime or ten.

“Honey, are you okay?”

Violet looked up from her book. “Yes, why?”

“You had the strangest expression on your face.”

“I was just focused on the story, I guess.”

He touched the back of her hand.

“If something is bothering you, you can tell me. You know that, right?”

“Of course I do.”

She put her hand atop his. The words gathered in her throat, but she swallowed them down. Anthony was the first, the only, good thing in her life. If he knew the truth, the things she’d done, he’d run as far away as possible.

Violet put the phone down, her mouth set in a thin line.

They won’t help her and you know it.

But they would. The woman on the phone said they would send someone out. A snippet of memory crept in. A woman from CPS came to her house once. In spite of the bruises on Violet, she hadn’t done anything except write a report, but things were different now. They took bruises more seriously. The little girl would be okay.

But you can make sure of it.

Violet sagged against the counter and groaned into her hands.

“Leave me alone, please, just leave me alone.”

Never.

But she already knew that. It would never go away. Never give her peace. She was broken. Wrong. She yanked the silverware drawer open and grabbed a knife.

“Is this what you want?”

Yes. You know you want it, too.

No. She wanted to be well. To be happy.

She made a tiny cut.

Yesss

“No! I will not do this. I will not.”

She threw the knife down, sank down with her back against a cabinet, and put her head in her hands. Recited the names. A harsh sob bubbled up from deep inside her chest. The names. The deaths. All her fault. She was a monster. With a grimace, she scrambled for the knife.

You want this. You know you do.

She slashed at her skin, her grimace turning into a smile at the sharp, beautiful sting of the knife. Even that was wrong. It never hurt enough. She cut again and again, the letters distorted. Wet, red mouths dripping crimson pearls. When she finished, she threw the knife down.

“Are you happy now?”

And there, on the delicate skin of her wrist: Violet.

One last name, one last death, to pay for them all.

What did you do? You stupid, stupid woman.

Tears blurred her vision as the blood dripped to the floor.

“Please forgive me, Anthony,” she whispered, her voice small and insignificant in the quiet. “It’s so much better this way. You deserve someone so much better.”

No, no, no! You can’t do this. You cannot!

She had to. It was the only way. Her limbs filled with lassitude, her mouth dropped open, and her breath came long and slow.

A shadow emerged from the wound like a ribbon, taking shape as it grew. It slipped free slowly, ponderously, its weight feather-light, its stench thick and heavy. It caressed her cheek in a hideous lover’s pantomime. She took a deep breath, steeled herself against the pain to come, yet the shadow slithered across the tile, moving away from her without a sound.

“No, no, no.”

She reached out, but her fingers passed through the darkness. She grabbed again and again, caught nothing but a kiss of air against her skin. Then the shadow slipped beneath the door, and she sobbed into her hands. She didn’t understand. She’d carved her name. Why didn’t it take her? She rocked back and forth, her arms wrapped around her knees. No voice whispered in her mind. Only a strange, calm silence. Could it have been that easy all along? But all those deaths …

No. It had to come back for her. It had to make her pay.

Ambulance lights cut the night with slashes of red and blue, and Anthony’s hand gripped Violet’s tight, his skin warm against hers. The neighbors watched from their porches, their eyes filled with curious alarm, as the paramedics wheeled a stretcher out of the green house.

“I wonder what happened,” Anthony whispered.

Violet rubbed her finger along the cut on her wrist, still in the pink of healing. A few moments later, the dark-haired woman stepped out of the house, her face expressionless, the little girl by her side. And on the girl’s ankle, not quite covered by a white ruffled sock, Violet saw the name carved into her flesh: Daddy.

No, oh, no. A chill raced down Violet’s spine. Her mouth went dry.

Anthony tugged her hand.

“Come on, let’s go back home.”

Violet heard his voice as if from far away. She couldn’t move, couldn’t take her eyes away from the little girl.

“Violet, honey, what’s wrong?”

The little girl met Violet’s gaze, her lips curved into a dark, familiar smile. A smile laced with hate.

Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband, two former shelter cats, and two rescued pit bulls. She is an Associate Editor of Electric Velocipede, a staff writer with BooklifeNow, and her debut novel, Ink, will be released in December 2012 by Samhain Horror. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange HorizonsApex MagazineLightspeed, and others. Find her online at damienwaltersgrintalis.com and on Twitter 
@dwgrintalis.

“Perspective” by Jake Kerr

The worst part about picking my son up from the police station was the walk to get there. I hadn’t been outside in years, but it was still the same — the drab gray of the smog-stained overcast sky, the decaying concrete, the stench of gasoline, urine, and who knew what else. But thanks to Jeffrey there was a new assault to my senses — black molecular paint permanently defacing an already wretched city.

With every step I could see his work — his “tags” as the police called them. They were all different, and there was no rhyme or reason as to what he would vandalize — the sides of buildings, street surfaces, retailer kiosks, even windows. The randomness made catching my son a difficult task for the police, but catch him they did, and now I had to walk these vile streets to bring him home.

I paid the bail, followed the directions to processing, and waited for my son. The policewoman there was polite and offered me a seat, but I stood. I wasn’t in the mood to relax, and Jeffrey needed to see how angry I was. So I waited, arms behind my back, staring at the door that led inside.

His head hung low as he walked out. He glanced up at me and then lowered his head again. “Hi, Pop,” he mumbled. I didn’t move. He walked over and added, in a whisper, “I’m really sorry.”

“You lied to me.” I grabbed his right hand and pulled it up between us. “These black stains aren’t paint, Jeffrey. That is your skin. It was the price to pay for your job, you said. ‘I’m painting ships with a new kind of paint,’ you said. You made the stains sound like a worthy sacrifice.” I tossed his hand down.

“Pop, please. Let’s talk about this at home.” He looked around the room, shifting from one foot to the other.

“Yes, we will discuss this at home.” I turned and walked out the door. He followed. I walked the streets again, Jeffrey shuffling behind me. I focused on the concrete at my feet, unable to bear looking at his work. My hands were clenched tight enough to turn my knuckles white, so I shoved them in my pockets.

I closed the door and set all the locks. I couldn’t remember the last time I had left the apartment for the drab world outside, and I did not intend to do it again. Jeffrey followed me in and stood near the door as I sat in my media chair. The distance felt greater than the span of a room. At least he was quiet and respectful. I sighed.

“The lies are what bother me the most, Jeffrey.”
He stiffened. “I never lied.”

I frowned and raised my voice. “You never lied? You said you were working at the shipyards!”

“I did work there. I painted ships.”

“Did you, now? Or were you defacing them in the middle of the night?” I pounded my hand on the arm of the chair. “I was sad, but I was still proud of you, Jeffrey. All those art lessons. All those awards. That you couldn’t make a living with your art broke me up inside. But to see you finally turn your art into industry, even if it required your hands to be stained that horrible coal black. That was a price I could at least understand. You were doing something meaningful.”

As I shook my head, he interjected, “I am doing something meaningful, Pop.” His voice rose. “You just don’t understand!”

“Painting permanent black marks across the city is not meaningful. This ‘tagging’ that the police told me about. It’s a mark of pride, they said. A way for gangs and others to know that this is your city.” I closed my eyes and lowered my head. “I thought I had raised you better.”

“Pop, I wish I could explain, but I’m not done. When I am, you will understand.” He looked so earnest and so sad. I stared at him, and he lowered his head. Despite his hope, I knew I would never understand. How could I? He was marching off to scar the city again, and he expected me to just accept it. I couldn’t.

I stood up. “Not done? You have shamed me, Jeffrey. Made me leave my home. Lied to me. And you are not done?” I walked over and waved a finger in his face. I considered striking him. I had never done so, and perhaps that was my mistake. Perhaps I was weak, raising him alone and not wanting to bring him any more sadness and pain than he had already experienced through the death of his mother.

A tear slid down his cheek, and I lowered my hand. “You don’t understand, Pop.” He said it in a whisper, then turned and strode down the hall to his room. I sat back down and dropped my head into my hand. I wasn’t sure where I went wrong.

Other than a few curt questions and answers, we didn’t talk during breakfast the next morning. Jeffrey seemed distracted and troubled, and I didn’t want to intrude. I felt that he had finally come to his senses and was working up the courage to apologize to me and present some kind of plan for turning his life around. So I gave him his space.

I was shocked, then, when he grabbed his keys and walked toward the front door. “Where are you going?” I asked, none too gently.

“I have work to do, Pop. Please let me be.”

I hurried over to him and grabbed his arm. “You are not leaving this apartment.” I held tight. “What work could you possibly have to do? Tagging some neighborhood dogs? Maybe getting arrested again, so I have to leave my home and walk these cursed streets?”

He pulled his arm free and turned to face me. “That’s the problem, Pop. You never leave the apartment. Ever since mom was hit by the car, all you’ve done is sit in your chair and look at old photos and read old books.” He was animated, and his desperate tone didn’t anger me so much as make me sad. “I’ve begged you to come with me, somewhere, anywhere. Hell, Pop, you won’t even go on the balcony.”

I dropped my arm back down to my side. I wanted to ask what this had to do with his delinquency. I wanted to ask why he was attacking me when he was the criminal, but he looked so concerned for me that I felt I had to respond. “There is nothing outside for me. You’ve seen how the city has changed. There is no beauty left. It’s all gray and drab. Why would I voluntarily walk through such a depressing world? Why would you want that?”

He shook his head. “I get it, Pop — clouds, concrete, smog. You’ve said the same things for years, but there is beauty in the city.” He walked to the door, opened it, and then turned back to me. “Mom saw it.” He closed the door behind him. I stood for a long while, unmoving, staring at the door. At some point I went to bed.

A day later I had unlocked the front door and considered going out to look for him, but I never opened it. It would have been hopeless searching amongst that sprawling compost heap.

I phoned the police on the second day and asked for help, but they already knew that Jeffrey was wandering the city. They called me back the next day. There was no bail this time.

I asked what happened, and the policeman curtly told me to just check the news. I did. Jeffrey had painted non-stop since he left our apartment, in a manic attempt to spread his tags across the city. The judge who originally allowed him bail was being pilloried by the press for releasing the infamous “Nanotagger” the first time. It wouldn’t happen again.

I hadn’t watched or read the news, so I didn’t realize that Jeffrey had generated worldwide attention. To some he was the new Banksy. To others he was a new breed of criminal, permanently vandalizing the city. To me, he was my son, my misguided, damaged, motherless son.

I ignored Jeffrey’s calls. His messages were plaintive requests for me to come talk to him, but I just couldn’t do it. What was there left to discuss? His final message was a request for me to attend his sentencing. He had something important to say, and this would be his last opportunity to say it to me in person. I was sure he assumed I wouldn’t leave the apartment to visit him in prison, and he was probably right. So when he asked if I would come as one last show of fatherly love before he was gone, I knew I would.

I made the walk to the Laura Tejeda Courthouse. It was the big one halfway across town, which only made the walk worse. Even the bright windows of the glass buildings did little more than reflect concrete and smog. High up one building I noticed the black paint of Jeffrey’s hand. It was little more than an oval. I tried to see it as art, but could not. It was just graffiti. Ugly black graffiti.

The press was everywhere. Microphones were thrust in my face, holo-cameras with bright lights aimed at me. I ignored the shouts of “Mr. Chapman!” or the rudely personal “Bill, Bill Chapman!” and shoved the microphones aside. People stared at me as I walked down the courtroom aisle, but I paid them no mind and sat near my son. He saw me and smiled. He wiped his eyes with a thumb and forefinger and then looked at me again. He held up his forefinger, as if telling me to wait.

It didn’t take long. Jeffrey pled guilty, and that was that. The judge asked if Jeffrey had anything to say. He stood up. His hands were shaking as he turned and faced the people packed in the courtroom. “I want to apologize to the citizens, officials, and merchants of the city.” His voice trembled and was almost a whisper. I doubt many heard him. But I did. “I cannot explain why I did what I did, but I do accept responsibility for my actions.”

Jeffrey then turned to me and started crying. “Pop, I have so much I want to say to you about what I did, but I’m afraid you won’t listen. So, I’ll just ask you for a favor, one simple favor.” I lowered my head. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I was sure I couldn’t help him. The thought of being powerless to help him brought tears to my own eyes. “Pop, all I ask is that you go out to the balcony of our apartment, look around the city, and think of me.” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “It may not be a lot, but it would mean a lot to me.”

He then turned to the judge and stood quietly as he was sentenced to ten years in prison for maliciously defacing public and private property. The fact that he used molecular paint was ultimately the real problem. He stole it from the shipyard, and stealing nanotechnology — even paint — was a felony.

I walked home, and the city was even more depressing, if that was possible. I sat down in my chair and pulled out the computer. I spent the rest of the afternoon looking at baby photos of Jeffrey playing with his mother. I cried.

I went to bed without stepping onto the balcony. I knew what Jeffrey was trying to do. I knew that he thought I was agoraphobic and that having me at least step on the balcony would be a step to freeing me from our — my — apartment. But Jeffrey just didn’t understand. I walked to the police station. I walked to the big courthouse. I could leave whenever I wanted. I just didn’t want to. The city and world were just too ugly.

The next morning I checked the news. It was the same story. Jeffrey was an anti-establishment hero. Jeffrey was a symbol of the cancer eating away at the city. I closed the computer window. The last thing I saw was a holo-image of Jeffrey standing in the courtroom.

I looked through the dining room. The curtains to the balcony were closed. I may have failed him as a father, but I could at least do this one last thing for him. It was silly and stupid, but it meant something to my son, so I did it. I walked over, opened the curtains, and looked out into a sky of gray clouds and smog. I shook my head and opened the glass sliding door.

I walked outside and over to the railing. I looked down at the city my son had used as his canvas. The view staggered me, and I grabbed the railing for support. I looked across concrete sidewalks, streets, glass, buildings, and kiosks — all of them permanently marked with black brush strokes. Each mark was a small part of a majestic, gorgeous whole — a painting of my wife as big as the city itself.

I held out my hand into the air, reaching through the distance to touch a piece of art that was untouchable. My wife’s eyes, the curve of her cheek, even the mischief in her smile. It was all there.

I couldn’t believe the scale of Jeffrey’s accomplishment. Each small piece of black paint was part of a whole that could only be perceived from this balcony, this exact spot. She looked back at me — the city, my wife. She was beautiful.

Ten years was too long to wait to hug your son, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. I wiped my eyes and moved my chair out to the balcony. ª

Jake Kerr began writing short fiction in 2010 after fifteen years as a music industry columnist and journalist. In 2011, Lightspeed published his debut story, The Old Equations, in its July issue. The story went on to be finalist for best novelette Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. A graduate of Kenyon College with degrees in English and Psychology, Kerr studied under writer-in-residence Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He is currently working on his first novel. Kerr lives in Dallas. Find him online at jakekerr.com and on Twitter @jakedfw.

“Rhapsody in Blue Shift” by Stephen Blackmoore

When I met George Gershwin I was cleaning up D Deck. The gravitational retractors had gone offline, sending clothing, magazines, a thousand odds and ends into the air. When they finally came back down it was my job to clean up the mess.

D was the refugee barracks where the captain of the Don Pasquale kept the “unscheduled” passengers. Normally we’d pick up passengers from planets along one of the main tourist routes, heading out of Phalanx or l’Avignon, under contract from one of the cruise lines.

Until the war changed everything. Now we carried desperate mothers, frightened children. We got them to neutral ports, but there were just so many of them.

We had to convert D just to lodge them. Half of C became a hospital ward. There was talk of tripling up bunks so we could expand further. We were drowning in a sea of refugees, the tide rising even as we bailed.

We cleared the deck when the gravity shut down to keep folk from being hurt. I pulled three mewling toddlers off the ceiling. That and my cleanup duty as a Janitor 3rd Grade would net me good overtime.

That’s why I was in the maintenance halls of D Deck, all alone, when George Gershwin walked in.

I didn’t know it was him, of course. I just saw a middle-aged man, with short dark hair thinning atop a long, hangdog face. He was wearing a suit and tie, something I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. My great grandfather had been a historian, and we’d watch old vids from a couple centuries past together. People dressed like that in those days.

But no one would ever do it aboard a starship. Too many things that can snag a finger or a foot, let alone something as ridiculous as a tie.

I stopped my vacuuming and looked up at him. His face was long and weathered. Though he smiled, there was sadness in eyes set small beneath thick bushy brows. Still, he seemed happy to see me. Usually the refugees would scowl when I came down to fix a clogged toilet, a busted shower. I was one of the hated elite. I was Crew.

“Mornin’, Sid,” he said, stepping through the iris valve door behind me. His voice was thick with a hint of Old Brooklyn in it.

“Morning. This area’s off limits until cleanup’s done, sir,” I said, ignoring that he seemed to know my first name. “You’ll have to go up to C. Only another hour or so.”

“Why would I want to do that? I came all this way just to talk to you. I can’t very well do that sittin’ up on some hospital couch with a popsicle stick in my mouth, now can I?”

“Me, sir?” I’d gotten into the habit of calling everyone who wasn’t part of the crew “sir.” Be polite to everyone, my momma taught me, and you can’t go wrong.

“Got wax in yer ears?” he asked, still smiling. “Sid Cooper, right? Good Ol’ Sid. Janitor 3rd Grade. Gonna be a hero some day, that Sid Cooper. That’s the talk I hear.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ve got the wrong guy. I clean toilets and vacuum trash.”

He gave me his hand to shake. My momma always told me to never trust a man with a weak handshake. His handshake was strong. Momma never told me whether to trust that kind of man.

“Name’s George, Sid. George Gershwin. Tin Pan Alley man from way back.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gershwin. If you don’t mind, though, you really need to be up on C.”

“Oh, I know. Just wanted to pop in and say hello. Sort of by way of introduction. You listen to music?”

“Some, sir.” Mr. Gershwin made a face.

“Some. Huh. Listen, can you do me a favor? Can you hang around B Deck near the communication relays for the environmental modules in say,” he glanced at a small, rectangular watch on his wrist, “half an hour?”

“I suppose so,” I said. Another ten minutes and I’d be finished.

“Thanks a million. I’ll go head on up to — ” he gave me a knowing wink as if I was in on a joke, “ — C Deck.” He turned to leave and stopped.

“Oh, and one other thing, Sid, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Bring an 18mm optical pump with a double tier connection.” I looked at him, confused. “Might be a good idea.” He winked at me again and stepped out of the room.

“Hey, Sid.” I turned back to see Wally, trundling into the room with that goofy walk of his. “You almost done?”

“Almost,” I said. “Mr. Gershwin came in, and I was talking to him for a minute.”

“Gershwin?” Wally asked.

“I think he was one of the refugees,” I said. “Dark-haired guy. Weird looking clothes? Must’ve walked right past you.” Wally frowned, his whole face drooping. He look back. Nothing but a long stretch of sectioned halls behind him.

“Didn’t see nobody.”

My momma told me to never trust a man who uses a double negative. “Then you weren’t paying attention,” I said. “He was right here.”

His frown deepened, which on Wally was a heck of a sight, believe me.

I pointed to the headphones hanging around his neck. “Probably listening to your music. Got distracted.”

“Yeah. Must’ve been it. You done, yet?”

“Almost.” I turned back to my work and paused. “Wally, you know where I can lay my hands on an 18mm optical pump with a double tier connection?”

“Dunno. Maintenance on B? What do you need it for?”

“No idea. Just know I’m supposed to get one.”

Twenty minutes later I had the pump. It was a small black box with a connection on each end and a set of interlocking rings surrounding them. It was as plain a piece of machinery as they came.

They were scattered throughout the Don Pasquale like rats in a ghetto. Every time I opened up a panel to clean some gunk lodged in between the vent piping, there they were. They were part of the communication system passing signals back and forth through the ship. Without them the ship couldn’t function.

I made my way to B Deck, near Environmental. The relays that Mr. Gershwin was talking about were between Engineering and Water Reclamation.

I wasn’t sure about Mr. Gershwin. He was about the oddest thing I’d seen on board, and with a hundred passengers per trip and three times that in refugees, I’d seen plenty.

Probably should have reported him to my shift supervisor, but I didn’t know where Leo was, and I didn’t have time.

If Mr. Gershwin had done something on B that I could have stopped, I’d feel awful. Not to mention, probably dead. The environmental modules control the air mixture, pressure, lighting, the works.

This section of B was pretty quiet. My shift, Blue, had ended a few hours ago, and Red shift was already on C Deck. I’d only been up because of the gravitational retractors.

So when the alarms went off and the intercoms started squealing, I was the only one there.

I could hear panicked calls from Engineering for maintenance assistance, and saw blue smoke coming from the panel in front of me.

They were already losing pressure in sections of C Deck.

I pulled off the panel, put out the cable-chewing flames with one of the extinguishers seeded throughout the ship.

The primary and secondary couplings were toast. It was their optical pumps. I’d seen it before. There was suddenly too much traffic for the relay to handle, and the optical pump had routed over to the secondary.

But the load was too heavy. So much so that it burned itself out. With the primary pump gone the remaining traffic had flooded the second, which tried to do the same thing as the first. And now it too had failed.

The tertiary pump was beginning to smolder.

These were 9mm pumps. The quantum drive computers that shove the Don Pasquale through folded space use 18mm pumps. If there’s so much traffic that it can’t be handled by an 18mm pump then you’ve got bigger problems.

I pulled the charred primary pump from its housing and dropped its smoking remains on the floor. Blowing on my burnt fingers, I connected the larger pump with my other hand.

Just in time, too. The tertiary pump popped, and the traffic re-routed back to the beginning, where it found a nice, fat pipe to run through.

The alarms went silent. Reports started coming in of pressure going back to normal. A confused maintenance crew arrived just as the all clear sign was called. They had a security detachment with them.

That’s when I went to the brig.

“Who told you to go up there, again?” Captain Martha Fischer asked. She was a small woman with a high forehead. Kept her graying hair short, made a habit of meeting with everyone on the crew at some point. I liked her.

“George Gershwin, sir.” Captain Fischer and First Mate Weiss had been exchanging looks for most of the conversation. “I think he’s one of the refugees.”

“Do you listen to music much, Sid?” Captain Fischer asked. We were in her office, the Captain, the First Mate, and my shift supervisor, Leo.

“That’s exactly what Mr. Gershwin asked me.”

“Sid,” the First Mate said, “how did you know how to fix the optical pumps?”

“I clean there every day. I had to read the manuals before getting onto Blue shift.” I looked at Leo, who was sitting stiff in his chair and sweating.

“Yes,” Leo said. “We don’t want the janitorial staff damaging sensitive equipment, so we give them rudimentary training.” He hooked a finger beneath the collar of his uniform to let a little air in. “Sid’s particularly good at it,” he added.

“Did Mr. Gershwin do anything?” I asked. “I hope not. Seemed a nice guy. Had a strong handshake.”

“No,” First Mate Weiss said, “it doesn’t seem anyone actually did anything. The system’s showing some wear. It’s a miracle they didn’t give out sooner.”

“I’m troubled by these reports of an unlisted passenger predicting crucial equipment failure on my ship, Sid,” the Captain said. “I’m going to release you, but if you see Mr. Gershwin again, report him to security.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, and that was that.

I didn’t see Mr. Gershwin again for a few more days. When he showed, he scared me half out of my wits.

“Hey there, Sid,” he whispered in my ear. I jerked awake and hit my head on the underside of the bunk above me.

“Heck, Mr. Gershwin,” I swore, rubbing a swelling lump on my scalp.

“Sorry, kid,” he said. “It’s Showtime.”

“I got into trouble because of you. They were going to lock me up. My momma said to never trust a man who gets you into trouble. I’m supposed to report you.”

“Your mother is a wise and wonderful woman, Sid, and sends her regards. Now get a move on.” I pulled myself out of bed, grabbed my coveralls.

“Not much time, Sid,” he said.

“Not much time for what, Mr. Gershwin?”

“The riots that are breaking out on D.” I stopped as I was zippering up my front.

“Riots?”

“Would I lie to you?”

“I don’t know. You haven’t told me why you’re here.”

His face cracked into a grin. “But that’s not lyin’. That’s just not tellin’ ya everything.”

“It sounds an awful lot like lying to me, Mr. Gershwin.”

“As we head down I’ll fill ya in. That work?”

“I suppose. But I really need to report you, Mr. Gershwin.” He clapped me on the shoulder as I stepped into my boots.

“I understand, Sid. Duty calls. But, really, what’s more important? Preventing a riot, or callin’ Leo?”

“I was in the brig because of you.”

“Did you know that there are almost a hundred children down on D? Poor kids. Orphans mostly. Sad.”

“You’re trying to get me into trouble again, aren’t you?”

“Trouble? My word, Sid. Why would I want to do that?” he said. “I just want to help those poor orphans. Did I mention there’s almost a hundred of ‘em? They could get hurt in a riot. Especially on board a ship where there’s nowhere to go. But if ya need to report me instead of helpin’, I understand. Duty.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Duty.” Mr. Gershwin was walking ahead of me as he spoke. I didn’t want to lose him, so I let him lead the way.

Something wasn’t right. “Hey,” I said, finding a hole in his story. “Why aren’t we hearing alarms?”

“It’s not a riot, yet,”

“Then what makes you think there’s going to be one?” He rounded a corner and stepped in front of the open double doors to Food Storage 87.

“That,” he said, and pointed to a large pile of crates stacked on a cargo lifter. Food delivery wasn’t my area. I was a Janitor 3rd Grade. But I knew my shift and who was around before and after. The provisions in FS-87 were for refugees on D. There was a full day’s worth of food here.

“They got nothing to eat?” I asked.

“Not all day. Been hollerin’ since last night. Bureaucratic snafu,” he laid an index finger against his nose and winked.

“But there are kids down there,” I said.

“Orphans even,” Mr. Gershwin added.

“This isn’t right.”

“So, what are you gonna do about it?”

They were going to riot if they didn’t get food. I squared my shoulders and hauled myself into the seat of the cargo lifter. It was like the tractors back home on the farm, all yellow metal and industrial rubber. Didn’t take me long to get it moving.

Mr. Gershwin was next to me as I backed the lifter into the dispensary elevator. As the doors shut and we started our slow descent, Mr. Gershwin started to hum.

“That’s a nice tune.”

“Thanks, Sid. One of mine. I’m a songwriter by trade.”

“But you said you were a Tin Pan Alley man from way back,” I said.

He laughed. “You don’t forget anything, do you? Yeah, I’m a Tin Pan Alley man. Means on my good days I’m a songwriter, on my bad days I’m a hack.”

“Can I ask you a question, Mr. Gershwin?”

“Shoot, Sid.”

“Who are you?”

“Well, that’s a tough one,” he said. “I’m a friend, and I’ve got a duty, too.”

“That’s no kind of answer,” I said. “You’re not one of the refugees. You’re dressed wrong, too.”

“You listen to music much, Sid?”

“You asked me that already.”

“Finish this up and when you get back to your bunk there’ll be a surprise for ya,” he said. “Can’t answer much more than that, Sid. Sorry.”

I didn’t like it, but my momma always told me that if someone doesn’t want to talk there’s no sense in trying to make him.

“Okay, Mr. Gershwin. But after this I need to report you.”

“Understood, Sid.”

The cargo elevator ground to a jarring halt. It paused, and with a metallic grind the doors opened onto chaos.

Refugees had torn huge holes through the cheap, plastic walls of the dispensary using whatever they could get their hands on. They were trying to get the food they believed was inside. I could see desperate people, angry faces through the holes. Some children, wide-eyed and hungry. A day on an empty stomach on a ship where the gravity goes off and the air pressure goes up and down was enough to make anyone crazy.

They saw me and the cargo lifter, and stopped. The moment hung in the air. Knowing that soon enough one of us would have to move, I decided it’d be better be me.

I eased the lifter forward. The dispensary was completely automated, provided it was supplied with food. There was more than enough room for me to spin the lifter around and get it in place for the loading arms to engage and restock itself.

“It’s okay,” I yelled. I flailed my arms to be understood. The loading arms behind me hummed. I raised my voice and spoke more slowly. “Don’t riot, please. You don’t… need… to… riot.” One of the children watching the loading process looked at me.

“We figured that out, mister.”

One of the men looked at me through the hole.

“I guess… we should line up for lunch then?”

“That would be a good idea, sir,” I said. “The autoloader will be finished soon and then there will be hot food for everyone. Could you organize something so that the little ones can get fed first?” He nodded and began barking out orders. I left him to it and turned back to Mr. Gershwin. He was gone.

But a security team was standing in his place.

“Let me guess,” Captain Fischer said. “George Gershwin, again?”

“Yes, sir. He says he’s a songwriter from Tin Pan Alley, but sometimes he’s a hack.”

“Ya don’t say.”

I was nervous. I didn’t know what I was saying. The security cameras had seen me walking into FS-87 and driving the cargo lifter down to D Deck. Alone.

We were in Captain Fischer’s office, just her, First Mate Weiss, and myself. They hadn’t bothered to call Leo this time.

“What is this, Captain?” First Mate Weiss said. He was exasperated.

“Patience, Randall,” Captain Fischer said, not looking at him. “I’m sure Sid will tell us everything.” First Mate Weiss glared at the Captain behind her back, but Captain Fischer just kept looking into my eyes and smiling. “You think you could go over it again, Sid?”

I did. I told her everything. I’ve got a good memory. Captain Fischer kept smiling, and nodding at the right places. I liked Captain Fischer.

“I can’t believe we’re listening to this,” First Mate Weiss said. Captain Fischer ignored him.

“Had you ever heard of George Gershwin before that time when the gravity went?” Captain Fischer asked.

“No, ma’am.”

“Didn’t think so. You can go, Sid.” She stood and patted me on the shoulder.

“Should I report seeing Mr. Gershwin again, if I see him?”

“Oh, definitely, Sid. Definitely.”

When I got back to my bunk I was alone. Someone had left a pile of data slivers. “Porgy and Bess,” “An American In Paris,” “Piano Concerto In F.” And a small, handwritten note.

“Have a listen. –G”

I picked up a sliver and slotted it into my music headset. The music rose up from the silence, filling my head with liquid gold. Piano keys pounded out tones, half steps, danced around melodies.

I lay there the rest of my off time listening to the singing, the melodies, the music. I savored every note, like it was the finest wine, let images dance in my head like they were sugar plum fairies at Christmas.

It was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard.

Mr. Gershwin caught me in the mess hall a few days later. The last of Green shift had left to start their rounds and no one from Red had come in. For a few minutes, at least, I was alone.

“Evenin’, Sid,” said Mr. Gershwin, standing at my elbow.

“Evening, Mr. Gershwin. How are you today?”

“I’m well,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I hadn’t noticed the twinkle before. Maybe it was because I hadn’t known he could write such wonderful music.

“Are you really George Gershwin?” I asked.

“Yes, Sid. I’m really George Gershwin.”

“You said my momma sends her regards. You seen her?”

“Oh, yeah. Karina Cooper. She’s a pistol! Mean poker player, too. Word to the wise, never try drawin’ to an inside straight.” Yeah, that sounded like momma, all right, God rest her soul.

“You’ve been awful helpful, even if you’ve gotten me into trouble. Why? And why you? Why not your brother Ira, or Irving Berlin?”

Mr. Gershwin laughed. “You’ve been doing your homework, haven’t you? We’re all just regular folk, Sid. Doesn’t matter if you invented fire, made a million on the horses, or ruled a country. We’re all just people. That’s why I’m tryin’ to be helpful. As to why it’s me here and not somebody else?” He gave me that broad wink of his. “Word to the wise,” he repeated, “never try drawin’ to an inside straight.” He laughed. I didn’t get it.

“Thanks for giving me that music, Mr. Gershwin,” I said, changing the subject.

“Thought you might like it. Now, why don’t you finish up that soup before it gets cold. We’ve got work to do.”

“I know, Mr. Gershwin,” I said. “You only show up when there’s work to do.”

“Don’t sound so glum. This is good work.”

“If you say so, sir. But I bet I’m going to get into trouble. Again.”

The grav-ball courts were always their quietest at this hour. Mr. Gershwin took me to the observation lounge. He motioned me to duck. I squatted behind a chair and looked down into the court.

“See that?” he asked.

“It’s First Mate Weiss,” I said.

“And what’s he doing?”

“He’s handing something to a man. Looks like one of the refugees. What is that?”

“It’s a bomb, Sid.”

“A bomb?!”

“Whoa! Hold your horses. It’s okay. Neither of them are what you’d call ‘good people,’ Sid. Weiss is trying to make some money on the side. The other guy is a terrorist. He wants to blow a big hole in the ship on D Deck. It won’t hurt anyone, though. Except for a lot of the refugees. Did I mention that a lot of the kids are orphans?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I had to do something. What did Mr. Gershwin want me to do? I asked him.

“Oh, you’ve done plenty, Sid,” he said, grinning. “Just one more thing. Can you repeat after me?” I nodded. “Weiss’ journal and list of accounts is in his personal safe. The combination is 27, 43, 9, 18, 2.” I repeated his words.

The refugee with the bomb was handing a steel case to First Mate Weiss.

“I’ve got to do something, Mr. Gershwin,” I said and turned. He was gone. In his place was a security team.

But this time they weren’t there for me.

This time First Mate Weiss went to the brig. He was the one who’d kept the food from going to D. He’d installed faulty optical pumps into the communication relays and shut down the gravitational retractors, too. My momma used to tell me that we all get what we deserve. I hoped so.

Captain Fischer called me a hero. She apologized for putting that micro-transmitter on my uniform. She said it was because she wanted to keep track of me in case I saw Mr. Gershwin again. I’m not sure she really believed that Mr. Gershwin was there. But if it hadn’t been for the transmitter she wouldn’t have heard me talking about the bomb or First Mate Weiss’ safe.

I only saw Mr. Gershwin one more time. I was cleaning up on D where the refugees had brought animals aboard. I always hated that job.

“Hoo!” a voice cried from the door behind me. “This place reeks like the Bronx in summer.” Mr. Gershwin stood there squinting and waving a hand in front of his nose.

“Good morning, Mr. Gershwin,” I said.

“Mornin’, Sid.”

“Is there more work to do?” I asked.

“I’m here to help you this time. You’ve been a sport. Anything I can do for ya?”

“Captain Fischer doesn’t believe me.”

“Can you blame her?” he asked. “It’s not like she’s seen or heard me. You want her convinced?” I nodded.

“Consider her convinced,” he said winking at me. He didn’t even say goodbye, just faded away with that grin of his.

And that’s when the music started playing. All over the ship.

Stephen Blackmoore is a writer of short stories, novels, and really pompous, pretentious essays. His latest book, the paranormal noir City of the Lost, is out through DAW books. You can catch his mad ramblings at stephenblackmoore.com or his writings about true crime in Los Angeles at L.A. Noir, la-noir.blogspot.com. Contrary 
to what you may have heard he does not have rabies. Anymore. Find him on Twitter 
@sblackmoore.

“The Heart of the Story” by Kat Howard

Stories have always fascinated us. The world was created with a word. Or at least so we say, in the story we tell of it. And we believe, because what else could be powerful enough to call a universe into being?

If you look at stories themselves, you might think they come from a muse. She — and oh, it is always she, this beautiful inspiration, this generous giver of words, this faithful servant of the creator — she is invoked with great cries. She is called upon to rage, to sing in the teller, to speak, and so make someone immortal.

She is, I am sure, somewhere even thanked.

Stories, then, come from the muse. There are stories that tell us this, and so it is true. We cannot, after all, imagine a story that lies.

But if there is a muse, as the stories tell us, if she is the source of our stories, then she must get her stories from somewhere as well.

Listen, and I will tell you a story.

The city had grown from stories. Streets were paved with discarded drafts and trees climbed up from heaps of slashed exposition. Certainly there were the type of dwellings more usual in places other than this city, houses made from wood in its original state, before it had been turned into a home for prose rather than for people. But most houses in this city were titles, set on foundations of subheadings and appendices, with the occasional flourish of a prologue added on to dwellings more epic in scope.

There may have, rumor said, been a cathedral once, built of stone and mortar, rather than of couplets and envois hewn to the sky with climaxes and denouements. Residents of the city even worshipped in this stone cathedral, though that was seen as a somewhat vulgar thing to do. Best for the younger, more daring set.

Worship was for things eternal, and stories lasted in a way more mundane structures did not.

Stories, words, were why people came to the city. Where else could one pluck a novelette, ripe and in full flower, from a tree hung also with figs? Or spend the night wrapped in the careful structure of a sestina, more faithful than any flesh and bone lover?

Ink stained the bottoms of Arachne’s shoes as she walked the city streets. When she had first arrived, she would carefully take her shoes off at night, turn them over, and record the words that appeared on their soles, making a commonplace book of her daily travels. She had since fallen out of the habit, but would occasionally sit and read. “Liminal,” “mere,” “antiquated,” her right foot would tell her. “Frolic,” “assemble,” “waltz,” the left. Her left foot always seemed to attract verbs.

Most days, Arachne would wind her path through groves of paragraphs and an arcade of unfinished chapters to the heart of the city. She did not care so much as she used to about trying to compose spontaneous poetry on the soles of her shoes by her choice of path around the city. She cared most for what stood in the city’s heart. Here was the true cathedral.

At the heart of the city, there was a bookstore.

A home for words in a place made of them. See how the conceit falls in on itself, like a book printed accordion-fold. A conceit, yes, but sometimes a conceit is the proper thing for the shape of the story.

Creativity in structure is all well and good. But what I crave is art. Story. The blood that runs between the bones.

Ben Loory’s Books, the place was called. The building looked as if it had been grown from the city’s literate soil, as if fragments of dictionaries, epics, romances, had been watered with ink, then covered over carefully with endpapers, until one day springing forth fully formed into a house of story. Its roof was shingled with quarto pages, and they fluttered as if breathing.

The floor sighed as Arachne stepped across the threshold, and the volumes settled quietly into place. She did not see anyone else in the shop as she walked in.

Arachne passed between lined shelves of books, which framed the interior doorway like an honor guard. She saw no one still, but somewhere, somewhere just on the edge of hearing, was breath or heartbeat. Presence. Arachne saw no one, but knew she was not alone in Loory’s Books, and the presence was comfort.

She stepped into the labyrinth of shelves, and if she had looked at the bottoms of her shoes, the right would have read “thread,” “love,” “monster,” and the left “turn,” “run,” “transform.”

Transform.

Here. I will tell you another truth. A bookstore is a metaphor. It is a time machine, a small box bigger on the inside, the original stage upon which all the world is played. The inside of a bookstore is a costume, a map upon which Ultima Thule and Hic Iacet Draconis are writ in the margins.

In a city made of stories, a bookstore holds the entrails through which the future is divined. It is the lock on the box in which hope is contained.

In a city made upon stories, words are not made flesh, they are made structure. The structures of Loory’s Books are cinquains and sonnets, triolets and villanelles — the frameworks that support the words that run riot and explode inside of the rules.

The rugs on the floor, worn by countless readers’ feet, have — if you look closely between the knots that hold the patterns together — occasional lines of dialogue tucked in amongst tassels of description. There is an art to interweaving the two, and a well-made storyrug is a treasure.

These were not Arachne’s preoccupations as she walked farther into the shelves, running her fingers along embossed titles and leather bindings. And while it is a metaphor that bookstores are bigger on the inside, in this instance it is truth as well. The further in that Arachne walked, the more shelves there were, and the more volumes on those shelves.

It is the nature of stories to find an audience. They want to be told. They crave being heard. They will go where the audience is. And certainly in a city where you might sit on a bench and enjoy the sensation of small fictions falling into your lap, intermingled with feathers from local birds, it is a unique thing, an event all out of time and place, when someone walks into a bookstore looking for the story of her heart.

Still, if you had asked Arachne what she had walked into the store in search of, she would not have been able to articulate it. There had been a need, that much she knew, but the need did not yet have a name.

Desire lies at the heart of all stories. Books are not opened unless the contents of their pages are wanted. Writers want, and readers want, and somewhere in the imperfect mirror of those cravings, story is born, fierce and screaming, as the products of passion often are. It will never look exactly like you expect.

Desire feeds a story, and causes the reader to turn the page, in time with a heart that beats, “what next, what next, what next?”

Just remember as you read, that you are not the first one who has wanted.

Arachne had walked deep into the bookstore, and from the corner of her eye, the shelves looked like hedges of yew or rosemary, like stone walls built to hide the monster at her heart. And yes, as much as every story has a muse, every story has a monster.

Often, the two are the same.

Arachne had brought no breadcrumbs to mark her trail out of the forest, no enchanted thread to unspool and so better flee to safety.

Stories, true stories, are not safe. They are forests, dark and wild, and they send birds to eat the breadcrumbs. They seduce the maiden, and claim her enchanted thread.

The lights of the store had dimmed, or become the slant of sun in the late afternoon, or the moon with clouds scattered across her face, and there were no longer long pine boards and spines of books beneath Arachne’s feet, but pine needles and moss and worlds of leafmould, calligraphied into letters that carpeted the floor of the forest where stories are born.

It had been miles, and her legs ached from walking. The back of her left heel was blistered from her shoe, but she had no desire to turn back, or find a way out. There was a pressure in her center, and behind her eyes. There were words that must be spoken. She walked on. “Words, words, words,” read the sole of her left shoe.

The Arachne stepped past the shelves of books that were also sometimes trees hung with pages, and into a clearing. “Here, here, here,” scrawled in ink across the bottom of her right shoe.

She sat down.

In the heart of every story is a forest, a tangle of words and thoughts, overgrown with secrets. You knew what would happen when you chose to walk into the woods. You were warned. There were dangers.

Do not stray from the path.

Beware of grandmothers’ houses. They will be made of candy, or contain wolves, or have chicken legs. In any event, you will be devoured.

Your eyes will be anointed by the petals of a flower and you will fall into love. Or into foolishness. They may be the same. You may not fall back out.

Once upon a time.

Into the woods.

Every bookstore is, at its heart, a forest. Pages begin their dreaming as trees, and the tangle of story has its roots there as well.

In the heart of the forest that is the heart of the bookstore that is the heart of a city sits a woman, and as she sits, a story writes itself to the beat of her heart.

This is where ideas come from. This is where I get my stories.

The heart that she sits in is mine.

Arachne unfolds herself from the floor of Loory’s Books. She blinks her eyes and the forest turns back into a labyrinthine arrangement of bookshelves. The floorboards, warm gold beneath the storyrugs, sigh beneath her steps as she walks back down the stairs, towards the front of the store. The shelves, in hexameters of dactyls, settle back into place, and the volumes that rest upon them slide back into their homes.

One volume more, cordovan calfskin, still smelling of the dark wildness of the heart of the forest, quivers slightly as it takes up residence in the top right corner of a case fronted with leaded glass. This is the private collection of Loory’s Books. Each volume is exceeding rare, unique in all the world.

Arachne crosses the threshold of the bookstore, steps back onto streets cobbled with five-act arcs, lists of dramatis personae, and epilogues mixed into the mortar. The sole of her right shoe reads “heart,” “forest,” “end.”

The sole of her left shoe is blank.

Kat Howard’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including the anthology Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, Lightspeed, and Subterranean. She is also the content editor for Fantasy-Matters.com. She writes with a fencing foil by her desk and lives in Minnesota. Find her online at Strange Ink and on Twitter @KatWithSword.