[Table of Contents with links follows editorial]
To write as a woman is to invite speculation even to this day, so it is only fitting that women write speculative fiction. Back in the early days of science fiction, in order to get published or taken seriously, many women had to either use male pen names (James Tiptree, Jr.) or vague and indeterminate initials (C.L. Moore). I myself use the elusive mixture of a non-binary abbreviation, and I’ve recently added my childhood nickname to my spec fic submissions. In this issue we have a writer who uses a male pen name, and I have written and published under a male pseudonym as well (Ramsey Lyons was one of my monikers from my early writing days).
There were those sheroes who used their own names (Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ) and we are grateful for all of these pioneering women writers who broke the stereotypes and norms of gender roles to be able to present their stories of other worlds. Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) for the longest time had a special Hugo Award named in her honor for fiction that told gender in new and interesting ways. Her short story “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” is one of the most gripping accounts of alien survival I’ve ever read, and also one with hot (but kind of violent) alien sex. She published this story in 1973, when women were starting to become more widely published, but the stories from her heyday in sci-fi were some wonderful works of gender rights philosophy (many attributed her work as male writing from feminist perspectives).
I have always wanted to do a tribute to these early women science fiction writers. And I decided it would publish in February, the month the Tiptree Award (now called the Otherwise award) was first established in February 1991, introduced as a new science fiction award category at WisCon (the world’s largest feminist-oriented science fiction convention)
In this issue we have women writers writing women futures from all kinds of points of view. An ageless eternal oracle sick to death of men of war. A space captain who always gets her man, whether he likes it or not. A futuristic female Sam Spade; and another future rookie cop who needs to solve a strange murder. A female robot who is a femme fatale. There’s something for everyone to like: dark fantasy, space detectives, steampunk, and there may be a space werewolf (the origin of the name of this magazine comes from a “werewolf in space” idea I had...once upon a fullish moon).
I hope you enjoy these stories from the pens of women speculative fiction authors. I know I did.
~M.X. Reo Kelly
Table of Contents:
Manifest Destiny and the Iceland Girl, by B.J. Thrower
Negotiations, by Sonia Focke
The Last Sybil, by Russell Hemmell
A Cracked Teapot, by Sherry Shahan
Decade City Blues, by Amanda Ellis
The Clockwork Gorilla, by Rainie Zenith
The Lady Anarchist Café, by Lorraine Schein
Black Hole Versus Banoffee Pie, by Maureen Bowden
Don’t Hate Me ‘Cause I’m Beautiful, by Rebecca Fraser
The Unfolding, by M A Smith
To Catch a Chameleon, by Lisa Timpf
Garnet City, by Monica Joyce Evans
Favor, by Shannon Phillips
Captain's Claim, by Susan Murrie Macdonald
From Above, by Donna J. W. Munro
Negotiations, by Sonia Focke
The Last Sybil, by Russell Hemmel
Manifest Destiny and the Iceland Girl, by B.J. Thrower
A Cracked Teapot, by Sherry Shahan
Favor, by Shannon Phillips
From Above, by Donna J. W. Munro
Freyja Gunthersdottir overheard Captain Bruce’s matter-of-fact tone as he peered out the starboard portal window of the spacecraft, at the spot where they’d landed on Mars. “Nothing much to see. Just some bushes with weird-looking yellow flowers, so . . . no Little Green Men to report to Headquarters, gosh darn it.”
Because the flight crew never bothered to inform her when anything important was going on, she happened to be dusting the control room during the landing. Freyja was forced to stuff her cleaning cloth in the top of her blue jean overalls, quickly reach up and grab an emergency seatbelt dangling from the row of launch seats on the aluminum-coated ceiling.
Clinging to it with both hands, she’d watched as Captain Bruce hung on his steering wheel for dear life, which was welded to the mechanical stump in the floor in the center of the room. The other two guys, the Communications Officer Phil, and his best friend the Flight Navigator, Brent, had tried to stay in their wildly rocking, plastic swivel chairs. The blonde radar operator, Ensign Pamela, bumped her big breasts against her console, but didn’t forget to blink her false eyelashes at the Captain until Manifest Destiny settled on the surface.
Her lips painted with bright-red lipstick, Ensign Pamela piped up now, “I hope you’ll pick a bouquet of flowers for me, Sir.”
He glanced back at her as the other two men stumbled out of their console chairs headed in his direction. “Sure, doll.” Wink-wink.
The lieutenants, both young muscle-heads, looked out over Bruce’s shoulders. “Wow, Mars!” they exclaimed together as if they were ancient Chatty Kathy dolls, and Freyja sometimes wondered who pulled their strings.
Arms down at her sides again as she squeezed between equipment next to the row of spacesuit lockers on the aft wall, she sidled over to the round window on the port side. At rest, the spacecraft Manifest Destiny was vertical and cone-shaped (engines presently at the bottom), requiring everyone to climb to higher floors on metal ladders. The control room was the lowest, largest compartment; the higher up a person moved, the narrower the available space became. There was the storage floor directly above, and then the galley floor where Freyja cooked meals or did the ship’s laundry. Crew berths were located above the galley, and Captain Bruce had his own cramped floor at the ship’s pinnacle, with a private bathroom.
Freyja had a tiny berth and two crummy wall-drawers on the “ladies’” level, sharing a bathroom with the Ensign, who routinely ignored her. Not exactly a shining example of an emancipated female, the blonde bombshell seemed to think the mirrored, make-up alcove was the most vital thing in her miniscule room on the far side of the floor.
It was a miracle, Freyja thought, that these dumb bunnies had managed a successful landing on the ship’s four, adjustable undercarriage legs, and at the exact coordinates, which she contributed to the crude, noisy bank of computers built into the forward operating consoles where the crew sat.
Mars was smaller than Earth, and as expected, the horizon was much closer. The tepid landscape was washed in tones of red and brown, but with strange, deep-black shadows. There weren’t any bushes on this side. He’s such an ignoramus, he doesn’t realize what an exciting scientific discovery it is to find flowering bushes on Mars! But that’s what happened when a super-power crumbled into religious mania and dictatorship; even their spaceships were retro throwbacks. Yet this crew of dolts were still considered winners, and today, they’d won the space race to Mars.
The wind outside was apparently blowing. There was a dusty haze off to the northeast, by Freyja’s rough calculation. Oh, there can’t be a storm! she thought in alarm.
Ensign Pamela stood with the Captain as he lit a cigar and puffed on it, filling the control room with a different haze. He leered at her; a typical tall, white American man with slicked-back black hair and a craggy, shaved face. Pamela apparently thought he was attractive, pausing in her high heels to adjust the garter of her silk hose (revealing a bit of her left thigh by inching up her beige uniform skirt). Ninny, Freyja thought.
Approaching in Freyja’s general direction, Captain Bruce said in surprise, “What are you doing here? Go about your business!”
“Yes, Captain,” Freyja said with false meekness. Replacing her at the portside window, he peered out again, whistling cheerfully, and she whispered, “Radar scan.”
“Hey, honey!” Captain Bruce barked. “Fire up the radar. We may have a storm coming.”
“Yes, Sir!” replied the Ensign with the big boobs.
Reaching the opposite side of the control room in the aft corner, and the ladder to the floor above, Freyja pulled the cleaning cloth from her overalls. She stepped on the lower rung and waited, pretending she was about to climb it and become invisible to these yahoos again.
Seated at her console, Ensign Pamela switched on her radar screen—she was only required to punch a couple of buttons, and then show the old-fashioned sweep of the radar beam on a circular screen to someone else. Rag deployed, Freyja swiped at the red spacesuit locker beside the ladder as she pretended to do her job, hoping the Captain wouldn’t shoo her away.
As the radar warmed-up, Freyja contemplated the fact that neither she nor the Ensign were considered equals to the men and their alleged, God-given superiority, by the benefit of their male attributes and social system of white male patriarchy; at least not where these pinheads were from. On board Manifest Destiny, she and the Ensign were diminished to second-class status: a sex symbol and a cleaning woman, and this was an aspect of the journey Freyja encountered daily, and with constant impatience. Oh, it suited her mission to be perceived as a lesser human being, especially with her odd accent. Her forged references impeccable, her white skin had been much more acceptable for this flight than any otherly-colored female. The lily-white crew discovers Mars, she thought in amusement. And I, the only foreigner on board, am comfortably insignificant.
Softly, the radar beeped, and Freyja studied the screen. It picked up a storm, all right, but it seemed to be retreating, for which she was grateful. Clutching the rag, she climbed up the rungs, her head and then her torso disappearing up to the floor above—where she quietly paused in order to observe the control room from this level.
“There’s a blob on the screen, Captain,” the Ensign chirped. She pointed a groomed nail with blood-red nail polish in his direction. “Over there.”
“So I was correct,” he said.
“You certainly were, Sir.”
Freyja could still see his boots at the port window, but facing the crew consoles now as he tipped cigar ashes on the floor. “We should celebrate, men.”
Freyja was startled when Captain Bruce added, “Where’s that—person? The cook?”
“The Iceland girl,” Ensign Pamela said, voice dripping with contempt. “Up the ladder.”
Boots thumping across the metal floor, Bruce said, “Lieutenant Brent, go tell her steak and baked potatoes for everyone tonight.”
“And champagne,” Pamela said. “Perhaps a good tossed salad?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m strictly a meat and potatoes man, myself. Fried eggs and potatoes with bacon and sausage for breakfast; my barbecue pork sandwiches for lunch with French fries dripping in grease. Sheesh, Ensign. Salad?”
“Onion rings, then,” the woman said in concession, actually sounding disappointed for a moment.
“Fine. Brent? Get going. Phil, let’s send a message to Earth about our glorious achievement.”
Freyja barely had time to disappear up the ladder to the third level, not wanting to encounter the leering Lieutenant Brent, a young, blonde buck. Besides, the menu this evening didn’t deviate much from the usual list; these men never encountered a vegetable they liked enough to clean their colons with, in her opinion, and it was she who was forced to deal with whatever messes they made, stinking up the communal heads they used.
Poking her head out of the smoky kitchen, Freyja caught Captain Bruce in the corridor with Ensign Pamela an hour before the celebratory dinner.
Pamela declared, “Not until I have a big, shiny diamond on my finger, Mister Man.”
“Don’t be such a prude! We both know you’re not.”
Prepared and served to them as ordered, and after devouring the gargantuan meal—there was precious little dried food or standard MREs in storage since this crew of “he-men” demanded regular chow on the voyage, causing the multiple refrigerators to tax the power supply—the men became drunk as skunks. Ensign Pamela shrieked with nervous laughter as she fended off the Captain’s advances, and then Lieutenant Brent barged into the galley to pester Freyja.
His boring argument that she was a lucky lady because a proper man such as himself wanted to bed a woman like her fell on deaf ears. He was so inebriated he threw up in her sink of dishwater before she managed to shove him out and lock the compartment.
Now it was the next morning, and Freyja saw her own reflection in the round window on the starboard side of the control room; her intelligent blue eyes, her black hair in two practical braids. In spite of hangovers, the crew had suited-up in their space gear to explore outside Manifest Destiny; Captain Bruce in his red suit, Brent in his blue, the radioman Phil in green, and for Ensign Pamela, a gaudy pink spacesuit, each fetched from the color-corresponding lockers behind Freyja.
As cook and cleaning woman, Freyja was given a used, dirty-white spacesuit not even specifically fitted for her. A special spacesuit for a lowly servant simply hadn’t been thought of at GSPHQ (God’s Space Patrol Headquarters) on Earth. GSPHQ had conceded to the necessity of everyone on board utilizing launch couches during blast-off (now on the ceiling of the control room).
Freyja had commandeered the vessel and locked them out, but they didn’t realize it yet.
With the earpiece in, she heard incoming chatter, craning her neck so she could see the pale red sky—and the next spaceship module heading in for a Mars landing.
The Conglomeration shuttle was a scout, and military in nature. With its sturdy wings, it was sleeker than the clumsy American rocketship. It had a thoroughly contemporary design with the most advanced equipment and onboard computers, and was meant to land horizontally with its four gigantic wheels rolling on the Red Planet’s surface. Through Mars’ thinner air, Freyja felt the vibrations of its engines as it set down, racing past the party of four astronauts outside.
“Confirm solid landing, Shuttle,” Freyja said.
“Roger that,” one of the pilots replied, with a strong accent—European or Near-Asian, but not like Freyja’s, who was descended from Old Norse peoples, the Viking explorers and raiders.
Slowing, the Conglomeration shuttle swung about ponderously, and came rolling back toward the Destiny crew. The shuttle performed a final braking and parked, steaming from the heat generated by its rear engines. Then the side bay doors swung up and open, discharging a company-strength of space-suited troopers down the auto-ramp.
Freyja watched the pink spacesuit of Ensign Pamela hopping back toward Destiny in Mars’ low gravity. Her pink arms waggled up and down in a panic, but her face was still invisible inside her helmet. Freyja knew she’d applied pink lipstick this morning, to match her ridiculous suit.
Captain Bruce’s right arm in the red spacesuit pointed at the disembarking troops and then he, too, bounced toward his ship—actually Freyja’s ship now. Behind him, Brent and Phil fired their laser guns at the newcomers, but whatever noise the weapons made Freyja couldn’t hear.
Light from other laser guns flashed, and the two young officers were “beamed,” their bodies crumpled to the surface of Mars. Troopers swarmed past them on Captain Bruce’s heels.
Pounding on the outside airlock of the door on the starboard side, and Freyja changed positions to stand in front of the small window. Captain Bruce unsuccessfully attempted to reenter his vessel, his suit speaker crackling with static into the control room, “Open up! Hey, you there! Cleaning lady!”
“Surrender, Captain, or they’ll kill you,” Freyja told him. Inside her pink spacesuit, the Ensign hiccupped and sobbed. “You’re being erased, you see. All your communications have been blocked, so Earth doesn’t know you landed. The Conglomeration reached Mars first. Manifest Destiny was lost in space, and history is being rewritten.”
Other voices now, “Arms up! Surrender or die!”
“Eek!” said Ensign Pamela.
Manifest Destiny was rigged to blow, and Freyja humped down the ladder from the second level into the control room with only a single bag slung on the back of her crisp white, Conglomeration spacesuit. Others had collected the stored data files on the ship’s primitive computers.
Commander Florian waited for her, his best engineers scrambling out the airlock; as it recycled repeatedly, it produced a hissing sound like boos.
“Ready to disembark, Hero Gunthersdottir?” Florian asked. He obviously admired her, but with his helmet on, his salute was a bit awkward as his hand tapped on his face shield. She snapped-to, politely returning the salute, and then lifted her helmet over her head, affixing it to her suit collar. Florian double-checked it, and finding it properly secure, squeezed her shoulder, but Freyja didn’t mind.
Outside on the sand of Mars, a red spacesuit and a pink one, stood together encircled by Conglomeration soldiers. It was interesting—and a bit difficult—to walk on Mars’ surface, but Freyja managed it in the lower gravity. Approaching the captives, she noted that a team of biologists were using a sophisticated, lightweight backhoe to delicately extract the Mars bushes with the blooming yellow flowers. It was good that the alien flora was being saved from the explosion that would rip Manifest Destiny to shreds.
Halting in front of her former shipmates (not that they’d thought so), Freyja said, “I’m glad you surrendered, Captain Bruce. You did the right thing. No one will harm you, but I’m afraid you’ll be in our custody from now on, you and the ensign.”
The shock of his defeat writ in his downtrodden expression behind his face shield,
Bruce said, “What—what’s your name again?”
“I’m the Iceland girl,” she replied.
“I didn’t deserve this.”
“Yes, you did, you and your backwards country, in so very many ways.” Heimskur heimskingis! Freyja thought. Stupid fools! And she honestly hoped it was the final time she ever saw, or thought about, the idiot crew of the Manifest Destiny.
I have a s&s novelette upcoming in Weirdbook #49, and a df drabble in Eerie River Publishing's Dark Magic Drabble Collection anthology. I've previously published in Asimov's, the old Aboriginal SF Magazine, in the 2019 horror anthology, Guilty Pleasures and Other Dark Delights by thingsinthewell.com, the 2020 reprint trade paperback, The Blood Tomes, by Tell Tale Press, and in many others.
I'm a professional SFWA member, and the 2020 VP of OSFW (Oklahoma Science Fiction Writers).
Personal Audio Log, Universal Time 3456:98
Lt. Zephyra, ESS Nocturna
What a day. Have you ever hacked into the mainframe of a sentient supercomputer using a Piet script and a reconfigured Trojan while the captain spouts philosophical babble at it? Wait. [recording paused] Third time this month? Jeez. Why do all these evil supercomputers use Piet? I mean, I get it, evil, but why an archaic, nonsensical colour-based language no-one has used for over a millennium?
On the plus side, I only needed to modify the code from last time to account for its data retrieval architecture, so the captain really had to hurry to get to the existential conundrum that made it look like he popped its circuits. Come on, honey. By now, everyone here knows you can't actually logic a computer to death.
But there went my coffee break and it made us late for our mission to Alpha Sagittari VI and its precious ardinium reserves and put me behind on configuring the translator.
Oh, look, at least the Chief Mate appreciates me. A commendation. Let's see if it gets approved, this time.
All right. Sonic shower, check. Nice music, check. Sperryl wine, check. Fluffy bathrobe, check. Alpha Sagittari VI is primitive and the geologists know how to use the translator. So: holovid or audiobook?
[comm whistle] LIEUTENANT ZEPHYRA TO SHUTTLE BAY ALPHA, FULL LANDING PARTY GEAR. DEPARTURE IN 20 CHRONO-UNITS.
Whooo. There goes my evening.
Audio Log Universal Time 3456:99
[mobile log data]
Soooooo. That went well. I mean, after all, who would have thought even a primitive society might have patrols in the tunnels beneath their main fortress? And who knew that large deposits of raw ardinium would short out the power packs in our laser pistols?
Me. I knew that. Oh, and Ensign Barnes, our geologist. He knew that, too. And the Chief Mate, bless his barren, administrative soul. He knew that. So did the three Crew Mates and the medic, and she barely acknowledges the existence of anything without a nervous system.
The dungeons are all right – bunk has a mattress and there's a cover on the amenities, so the smell's not too bad. Aaand – trousers! I mean, I've got some mean legs, if I do say so myself, but they tend to get scratched up in firefights. But if you re-program your sex in the 'cycler database, it'll give you the boy uniforms and – ta-da! – no cuts that get infected with alien spoors and spawn weird telepathic life-forms.
They took the Captain. I can hear the others in their cells taking bets on how quickly the Queen will fall to his charms.
They dragged us before her, resplendent on her throne of stone and silver, a gold and ardinium crown and matching bracelets and collar throwing green highlights over her dark umber skin. Her eyes were flint as she looked us over.
The Captain, of course, was talking. Doing what he actually does best. I did my best to translate – their language is very close to others in the database and the translator raced through vocabulary and syntax and consonant shifts and I chose whatever seemed least like gibberish, hoping it made sense. I'm not actually a linguist. Not of sentient – oh, never mind. Her face was impassive as she listened.
And then our eyes locked.
I probably imagined it. And yet – the cold steel of her eyes seemed to ignite. I couldn't look away. I felt – breathless, shipwrecked, cast adrift in the middle of an asteroid field. And then she turned back to the Captain, as though she had felt nothing, as though her whole world hadn't been tilted on its axis. I glanced at the others, sure they must have noticed. No one reacted.
Just me, then.
They're taking their time with the Captain. I guess whatever they were discussing didn't need an interpreter, even one as clueless as I was.
Now why did that hurt?
Audio Log Universal Time 3457:00
[mobile log data]
They came for me, eventually. I clutched my data recorder, heart racing. Maybe the Captain wasn't having fun times with the Queen, after all, but with the Chief Torturer instead, and now it was my turn. Torture? Done that. 0/10, don't recommend.
No. It was more probable that the Captain's negotiations had reached a state where oral communication was required.
Ding! I won! The guards took me higher and higher in the fortress. The walls became smoother, covered in spidersilk hangings, inlaid with ardinium. Torches burned along the walls. Tsk. Fire hazard. Closed oil lamps are the way to go; less soot on the ceiling, too.
The Queen's chambers were everything I imagined. Silks and furs and gold and ardinium, the cloying smell of spices in the air. And, lounging among them, the Queen herself, dressed in something flowing and satiny that hid and revealed as she shifted.
Funny. I couldn't see the Captain.
The Queen beckoned. The guards pushed me from behind and I scowled. I knew how this worked. I stood before her – my hair all over the place, my skin smudged, my trousers ripped (but look, no sepsis or alien parasites! Yay!) and mumbled what my translation programme told me the standard greeting should be.
She looked me up and down and smiled. With a wave of her hand, she dismissed her guard.
I pulled my eyes away from her and scanned the room. She said something and I stupidly forgot I had my recorder and just stared at her like a guppy out of water. She smiled again, and this time there was warmth in it. She patted the bed beside her.
She spoke again and this time I looked down at the screen. It said: <Your king sleeps in the borgle space.>
I laughed. I couldn't help it. Of all the ludicrous things to have ever happened to me, all the trans-dimensional godlike beings, all the slave societies run by well-meaning computers (Whitespace-based), all the time-travel, the space gladiators and the surprisingly vicious snails of Arcturus, “borgle space” was somehow the pinnacle.
Her mouth thinned and she said something sharp. I gasped and tried to pull myself together. "My device," I told her. "Gave me the wrong words." I hoped the phrase I chose didn't involve the equivalent of "borgle space".
"Your king," she repeated and pointed to a door off to the side. <He sleeps.> She patted the bed beside her. <Tell me about him.>
I sighed. Here we were again. How often had I had this conversation with High Priestesses, Pirate Captains and Warrior Queens? "What do you want to know?"
She stretched out and caressed my arm. I shivered in the warm room. <Is he ...> the recorder gave me several options for the last word. One was – "Fertile?"
<Does he make good babies?>
Hooboy, and does he. Guess who manages the birthday calendar and sends regular paternal greetings? Ding! You guessed right. What with FTL time-warping and relative planetary days, getting birthday gifts to everyone on time deserved a commendation in itself. I simply nodded.
<Good. I need a kitten. But I cannot give too much power to my head alligators.> Kitten? Head what? Never mind, I got the gist. She toyed with a flyaway strand of hair on my brow. Her hand smelled of spices and sweat. <You do not wiggle from here?>
"No," I was a little breathless. The heat, perhaps. "I definitely do not wiggle from here."
<Hmmm. Good. The head alligators will be angry I did not choose any of them. But if I did, they would all fall upon him like mice.> Whoa. What kind of mice does this planet have? <An outsider is ... chocolate. Someone with no windlethorp. This way, my kittens will endure. And I can keep them guessing as to who ended up in my carriage.>
Her hand travelled down my face. <I am sorry. Your gunnysacks cannot be allowed to go free. But until I am certain of kittening – your king will need his translator to help him skydive.>
The translations were getting more and more surreal. I set the recorder aside and captured her hand. Our eyes locked.
Turns out, I make a pretty good negotiator.
Personal Audio Log Universal Time 3457:10
Tagged to public view
All right. Sonic shower, check. Sperryl wine, check. Fluffy bathrobe, check. Getting everyone out alive after the medic confirmed conception, and with a cargo of ardinium to boot, check.
Ah, my good friend the Chief Mate. Who... was unable to get my commendations approved. ˗He's really sorry, yadda yadda. Good work getting everyone out, better luck next time.
[recording paused for 600 seconds]
All right. Still in orbit? Check. Security to Shuttle Bay Alpha overrode? Check. Piloting license up-to-date? Who cares? Underwear? Hell, no.
This is my official resignation. I'm off to be a royal consort, bitches.
Sonia is an Egyptologist by profession, a teller of tales by trade. She lives in Munich, Germany, though in her head she can be found anywhere from Middle Earth to Coruscant. She has showered with a scorpion, married a blacksmith, moved house in a VW Polo and learnt the whole of The Mikado by heart. She banks with a dragon and curates The Museum of Lost Things, a piece published in part in the Australian magazine Overland. She is a contributor to the Arcana2020 project which will go online in October of 2020.
My name is Taraxandra, and I am what of integer remains in Troy.
Integer not in the sense of ‘just’--no pure soul has ever walked on this blood-soaked ground. I only mean ‘intact’. And if history says, well, not that much, it is because that’s the truth. I am damaged goods, too. It’s only that my injuries are less evident than the city’s shattered houses or the collapsed columns that used to sustain my temple. My scars are less offensive to the eye than the sight of mutilated soldiers or ravaged girls bleeding on the streets.
They’re almost delicate in comparison.
But don’t be fooled, oddly dressed visitors, you who come from a distant world to roam through the debris of this forgotten land. My wounds are worse because they’re ominous. They’re not just witnesses of a past of violence; they point to a future of doom.
Isn’t this the reason the new age discovered me again?
I am Taraxandra, white silky arms and pale green eyes transparent as crystal, eyes that hide under a glance of indifference, as tranquil as it is fake.
The reason I’ve survived?
Fate opens its entrails to my stare and allows me to glimpse in that crimson, bottomless abyss. Time travellers that land here searching for answers, however, have forgotten how wisdom always proves to be useless.
If they knew, they wouldn’t flock to my temple in shambles, taking so many risks.
Those visitors from far-away ages are the only company I have, though at times I feel so alone I’m almost grateful for their visits. An eternity of loneliness is the price for my unwanted gift, and that’s not a novelty, no: I got used to the contempt of my town.
I remember watching my mad sister’s unmarked grave when everyone else fled from the war, never to return. The songs of grasshoppers have been the only sound-making devices populating my visions since that fateful night. Phantom-like wraiths from the Neverland keep the silences in-between at bay.
Even the gods have deserted the losers and their dwellings, all of them, except one: the violet-eyed deity that speaks with my voice and possesses my body with the suave violence of a new lover. She is a gentle god, like a few are, and a cruel god—the way they can’t avoid being. She has always answered to the cries and laments and desperate interrogations ever surging from the eight corners of the world, from all future years this planet has still to live on, and to all the travellers yet to come.
Tottering like a bank of seals on the seashore where killer whales come to feed, those sons of mankind from the future often come back. How many of them have I already seen? Their number is staggering, to a past that has since long lost any consistency even for me, who still inhabits its void shell.
They ask, they interrogate, they order—like pretentious beggars without manners. They believe they’re entitled to know. They assume the technology that allows them to travel back in time translates into the power to change their destinies. This is why they’ve sent him, who now walks through my doors.
Mankind is not ready to hear what the god, and I, have to say. They won’t listen, the way they didn’t listen to Cassandra. They’re like the Trojans, intoxicated with ephemeral might, blinded by hubris.
* * *
The man comes forward, looking at the temple ruins with wide-open eyes. He draws my attention more than usual. He’s the first to come from an age so distant in time from mine, and, as far as I’ve experienced, with any kind of emotion. He must be someone important if he has been chosen for this task--they invariably are--yet his hair is cut short, like a slave or a peasant boy from Mycenae. His garments are weird and vulgar. He doesn’t wear any kiton. Instead, an ugly cloth covers his lower body from his waist to his ankles, too tight on his legs. A harlot would be more elegant than him. Does he intend to insult me or is he a horrid sign of the kind of future that awaits humanity—utter and continuous degradation?
Looking at this man and knowing what is going to come, nausea grips my stomach, and a sense of longing for my dead city. I’d love to rest in the Elysium now, among my dead brothers and sisters, whom visitors from another time can never reach. But the choice of dying was taken from me, together with all the rest.
“You know where I come from,” he says, stepping into the adyton. “From when.”
“I need answers.”
He has ignored the sign that marks this area as inaccessible, allowing only myself inside. Or, he thinks he can get away with his impiety.
“In my age, they say you’ve defeated death, therefore, you can see into the future. Read ours, then.”
What a strange way of talking to a priestess, and impolite. Nobody should ask for the Gods’ words without making an offering first. “Whoever understands the past can read the future,” I reply, glancing at him from behind the silky veil of Cassandra’s shroud. I’ve been wearing it on my head since the day she passed, to shelter me from a sun I have no desire to be warmed by and a moon I prefer to ignore. “Everyone cannot make sense of it.”
Arrogant, like the Greeks, and hopeless, the way we have always been, running blindfolded toward the cliffs overlooking the dark blue Aegean Sea.
“You come from a world in tatters, like the one history has left behind," I say, slowly, hands that hover above the brazier. Pale vapours dance in the hall, creating spirals of smoke. "Like mine, too. Why do you think you can do anything to save it?"
"This is why I came to search for you. Our planet is on the brink of the apocalypse, and I do not have a lot of time left." He approaches, bold yet uneasy. "The legends say that you have the power to save if men listen to you."
"Who has the power to save, has the power to destroy."
I see him becoming paler as he takes a step back.
“Are you a soothsayer of disgraces, like Cassandra? Or, are you a goddess that conjures misfortune with your voice of doom. If I kill you, would Troy’s fate be spared in my world?”
There’s brashness in his tone, but his stare is circumspect now. He has started realizing, confused, what his future is going to bring.
I smile, and I know he can catch the nasty, reptilian glint shining from under the veil. He shudders, fearing what he can’t control. He raises his strange, metal-like weapon to fire at me.
A sense of elation overcomes my sadness, while I see this man’s massacre looming in a nearer time than the one awaiting his world. “You can’t kill who’s already dead, traveller.”
“You’re well and alive and in front of me.”
“Belonging to a past you were able to reach thanks to your machines, not to resuscitate,” I say, with a laugh.“Only you’re alive here.” But not for long, no.
Behind him, the hungry shadows of the vengeful dead are already rising from the graves they’ve never been given, that have been grabbed away from the fingers of the living. They never lose time to consume the fresh bones and new flesh that enter this temple. I turn my head away, averting my gaze from the ordeal.
* * *
I drag the traveller’s body--what remains of it--over the burial ground that has welcomed so many before him, from the moment Cassandra closed her cerulean eyes until now, passing through eons of time, war, and shreds of flesh.
I observe the field with misty eyes. Thousands of tiny white flowers, one for every visitor that has stepped on this grass. Like the others, he was blind, unaware that his world was already condemned by the same logic that had consumed mine: the quest for power, disregard for nature, cosmic hubris and lack of compassion.
New worlds will rise and fade away in tears and blood whilst the lesson remains ignored. Until then, Taraxandra will remain captive in her temple, alone, nursing the asphodels and the forgotten city, listening to questions men don’t want the answer to.
Another asphodel will blossom from the green fields tonight, one more asphodel to make this world beautiful again.
The story has appeared in Helios Quarterly Fantasy, #4, 2017.
Russell Hemmell is a French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and Japanese manga. Winner of the Canopus Awards for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. Recent stories in Aurealis, Cast of Wonders, Flame Tree Press, The Grievous Angel, and others. SFWA, HWA, and Codexian. Find them online at their blog earthianhivemind.net and on Twitter @SPBianchini
Iris longs to be with others who resist State laws; others who risk punishment to express themselves however they choose; others who believe that what a person dreams is more important than exams devised to test how little you know about history.
She’s been searching for a group she heard about during a blackout: C.R.A.P. The Criminally Rebellious Adolescent Population supposedly live in a crumbling 20th century bomb shelter, playing instruments ripped off from the State Repository: assorted brass and drums, a piano with non-synthetic keys.
Iris dreams of joining them.
She risks venturing above ground, hunkering over the rusty handlebars of a felonious ten-speed, peddling above the transit tube that links one underground metropolis to the next, sweating inside her black neoprene wetsuit, black skullcap, black combat boots, hoping all her blackness will blend into the inky night. A guitar is slung over her shoulder.
Up here, in the messed-up ozone, all is as quiet as the day personal transport became illegal. Everyone knows people once lived above ground, drove vehicles with built-in music systems, and made babies in the backseat instead of in Petri dishes.
That was before the last trumped up election.
Iris immerses herself in a new theory, letting it expand from conjecture to verity. What if State-professed enemies are imaginary? Who would know in a world where lies are passed off as truths and truth is virtually unknown?
She wonders why the old and diseased don’t rise from beneath the State’s tyrannical thumb? Break into the Repository and steal bikes, skateboards, scooters, wheelchairs—anything to propel them down an unbroken path to freedom. What do they have to lose?
Her boots beat the pedals, wheels spinning as a drone spirals toward her. If it detects her neuro-waves, her whereabouts will be transmitted to The State lickety-split. Those who violate curfew disappear for good.
She chokes the handlebars, praying the metal frame will interfere with the eye-beam, deflecting rays like a shield. The drone moves swiftly, sputtering overhead, “We’re watching you C.R.A.P. You’re never out of our sight.”
Iris ducks as sparks ricochet off the bike rims and singe her wetsuit. The drone oscillates strangely before dropping and exploding.
The bike protected her!
She pedals back to her zone, a lone figure among fleshy rats with gray, expressionless faces. Tomorrow night she’ll venture further, intent on finding C.R.A.P., now certain they exist. Otherwise, why program a drone with the C.R.A.P. message?
Iris pauses near the opening of her underground unit, a metal tunnel that leads to an equally rigid life-pod. She turns, hearing the unmistakable melody of a human voice. Who would risk defying the curfew ordinance?
She dares to ask, “Anyone there?”
Iris swings off her bike, works the front wheel into rubble, ignoring the hum of diagnetics below. “It’s okay,” she says. “I’m C.R.A.P. Like certifiably.”
She senses movement, shuffles closer, and raises two fingers in a primitive peace sign. “Hello?”
Then Iris sees her. A girl about sixteen, lying on her back, arms crossed over her chest. What shocks Iris most is the neglect of her uniform, which sends a message to the State--UP YOURS—a phrase she’d learned in her History is Fiction class.
The girl caresses a pet rat.
Iris smiles, believing in goodness. “What’re you doing up here?”
The girl moans.
“Are you okay?” Iris kneels by her side. Finely spun hair frames the most exquisite face. But her eyes are vitreous. Iris has seen that expression before; but she isn’t sure if it’s hope or fear.
The girl’s unruly presence gives her courage. “Are you C.R.A.P.?”
The girl moans again and sinks further into herself.
Iris wonders if being C.R.A.P. means you’re a little bit crazy. If allowing yourself to feel, like the State says, is the definition of madness.
She swings her guitar around and plays a few chords.
The girl begins to sob.
“Please, don’t cry.” If only Iris had learned to sing—but when she relaxes her throat, a discordant quaver seeps out.
The girl sobs louder. “It’s just so . . . so beautiful.”
Iris sets her guitar aside. “Where did you come from?”
“Petri-X.” The girl sounds ashamed.
Iris stares at the curve of her neck. Perfect, unflawed. She’s removed her surgically implanted auditory-phone. Wires dangle daintily from her ear. Iris disconnected her own phone the last time she sneaked out. Iris would purr her name if she knew it. “I’ve never met another C.R.A.P. ”
The girl’s eyelids flutter. “I hear there are more like us. Up here, hiding in ancient restaurants and pre-historic strip malls.” She moves her arms, revealing a tear in the front of her uniform where she’d severed her feeding tube.
“Are you hungry?” Iris asks. The girl appears starved.
She nods. “I’m Lily.”
Iris lifts the top-half of her wetsuit and unwinds her feeding line. It swells like a tiny inner tube. She licks the end before inserting it through the tear in Lily’s uniform, gently working it into her navel clamp, allowing her own life juices to flow into Lily.
Lily scans the wetsuit. “You look like a victim of pyrotechnics.”
Iris and Lily meet like this each night in the mangled milieu of glass, steel, and concrete that was once museums, libraries, hair salons, and video arcades.
Iris plays guitar. Lily paints, using the old-world technique of fresco. Tons of plaster litter the ground, so no problem there.
Iris watches her separate areas with a flat piece of metal and sketch sensual curves of landscapes on the rough surfaces. Scenes of fertile fields and swelling seas, bucolic places they’ll never see or smell.
Lily lulls Iris with tales of paintbrushes woven from her hair and tints mixed from tears. “I tried State-sanctioned art,” Lily says with a lazy stroke, adding carmine to an otherwise colorless world. “We were required to replicate the classics from archaic books. Mine were exact copies, garnering approval and favor, but I was nothing but a serf. Crippled inside.”
“So you ran away?”
“Do you believe we have mothers, fathers, sisters, or brothers other than those in the lab?” Lily asks, chewing the end of her brush. “I once dreamed of being excavated from the belly of a wailing woman.”
“I had a similar dream.”
“They only want us to know what they want us to know.” Lily resumes painting. “I prefer High Renaissance art to 20th Century soup cans. Don’t you?”
“I once tore at my flesh as a way to call myself back from nothingness.”
Iris gasps a little. “It’s up to us to create the light.”
Lily cradles her pet rat and lets it perch on her shoulder. His pink tail skims the hollow between Lily’s breasts. Iris has to look away.
“Imagine spending four years lying on your back painting a ceiling,” Lily says. “So long ago, yet his images tell the history of creation and the fall of humanity. Did you know Michelangelo wrote sonnets before Shakespeare?”
I feel as lit by fire a cold countenance
That burns me from afar . . ..
I feel two shapely arms . . ..
Without motion moves every balance.
“Where did you learn that?” Iris asks.
Iris marvels at the way great thoughts seep from Lily’s mind. “I’ll set it to music.”
“We can’t keep meeting here,” Lily says, her voice no longer frail, gaining strength from the nightly injections. “We need a place that’s ours alone.”
The universe had dropped perfect C.R.A.P. in her junk pile. They even have the same thoughts at the same time. Like all star-crossed lovers.
Luxurious nights pass in secrecy above ground.
Lily grinds plaster and mixes pigment in preparation for their journey. “Being together like this is pure light,” she says. “They can’t lock up our hearts.”
Iris tunes her guitar to Lily’s breath. The frequency lifts her for any uncertainties ahead. She packs essentials: antiseptic swabs to clean her feeding tube and the box of Super Strike Bowling Alley matches she unearthed, worth a fortune on the black market. A corroded hubcap becomes a second bike seat.
When it’s time to set off, Iris slips the top half of her extra wetsuit over Lily’s ragged uniform. “To blend with the darkness.”
“If only . . .” Lily stops.
Iris understands completely. No one can be wholly beautiful in State-issued shoes. Guaranteed ugly for life. She steps from her boots. “Wear these.”
Lily smiles, lovely as a cellulose rose.
They travel under a moonless sky. No stars. No asteroids. Only dust particles and chemical pollutants extending into the atmosphere. They pass an enormous billboard: Fear the Enemy. Deport. Deport. Deport.
“Can we really survive on our own?” Lily keeps asking. “Find a place away from spies who are so wicked and sleepless?”
“We’ll discover one,” Iris says.
“It’s a dream waiting to happen.”
Iris wants to say something equally brilliant, if only she had the words. But then, a conversation wasn’t really necessary when two lovers agreed. No one had ever been so in-tune with her, not even her petri-parents. Sure, they’ll miss her, as she’ll miss them. No doubt they’ll spawn a clone from her DNA, without the recessive C.R.A.P. gene.
Her diagnosis had come in Institutional Day Care when her brain rejected the requisite digital-chip. A month of interface examinations revealed a hypersensitivity to mandated directives. Her Q-R tattoo scans social, emotional, damaged.
On the seventh day of their trek, Iris and Lily settle in the bowels of a toppled theme park, in a moat where the head of a decapitated Alice-in-Wonderland lolls in a cracked teacup. They stow away during the day, foraging at night for anything useful—hauling off smashed, broken, bits of this and that. A miniature castle door becomes their front gate. They plant a plastic palm, add a garden flamingo. Scraps of wire mesh are woven into a dome roof in hopes of protecting them from drone rays.
Michelangelo eliminates marauding rats, pulverizing spines and skulls, growing fat as a fabled cow. Lily tans the hides, stitches them together, and fabricates something called wall-to-wall carpet.
Iris works to curve a splintered wooden stake into a bow. She braids twine, knots it over the ends, pulls it taut. Another stake becomes an arrow with a razor-sharp point. Lily fashions an over-the-shoulder sleeve from hides.
Meanwhile, they’re in dire need of a tube feeding.
Iris rummages around, uncovering a case of Cool Ranch Doritos, which had somehow survived the expiration date. “A feast!”
“Illustrious!” Lily presses her lips to Iris’s mouth; Iris loses herself in a primeval memory of vanilla and orange blossoms.
“Ours is the happiest place on earth,” Lily says.
Iris picks up her guitar, arranging words in an elaborate language.
Lily works pigment into wet plaster, languishing over her latest fresco, Iris’s Song. Michelangelo nibbles her toe.
Iris shoos him away. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
Lily seems oblivious. “What, my sweet?”
“Your toe,” Iris says. “It’s bleeding.”
“Red! Quick! Fetch a receptacle!”
Soon the trees in Iris’s Song bloom scarlet.
Iris never hungered for her more.
They no longer talk about searching for other C.R.A.P.
Early one morning, Lily weeps over something she can’t explain. Iris believes her tears are opalescent from the absorption of fluids through the feeding tube. It must have extra nutrients, she reasons, because Lily’s breasts are overflowing with the same milky substance.
Lily fashions a tent-like dress for herself. “Rock-a-bye, baby, on the tree top.”
Iris doesn’t know if it’s a song or a poem or how she knows the next line, “When the wind blows the cradle will rock.”
Summer heat rages and violent winds consume the crumbling ruins, sweeping away Lily’s last morsel of plaster. She cries and cries, her tears raining on seething thermals.
Iris repairs a broken-down cart for a trek outward. “I’ll gather enough plaster to last forever after.”
“When we’re together I’m rarely afraid,” Lily says. Her beautiful eyes gather Iris in and then cast her off. “Promise you’ll come back . . . ”
“Your heart will travel with me.”
Iris shoulders her sheath, places the bow in the cart, and pushes it into a twilight strange with colors. It’s as if someone sprayed everything gunmetal gray. She thinks about her life with Lily; how she creates art from nothing, knowing no one but Iris will see it. Just as Iris shapes songs, knowing no one but Lily will hear.
She worries about Lily’s swollen belly, fearing it may be an invasive growth. Instead of looking for plaster she should be whisking Lily underground to a clinic. But that would mean turning themselves in to The State. They’d be put on display, sealed in separate glass cubicles. Separated, forever.
The windstorm slowly dies.
Iris wheels the cart around debris, pausing near a pyramid of ash, where a mischief of rats groom themselves. All wear collars.
The implications leave her breathless. Pets? Or spies? Impossible to know.
A mangy rat skulks forward, staring through soulless eyes. Iris grips her bow, retrieves the arrow, and fires. The arrow is a winged creature, flying smoothly and taking the rodent by surprise. She recovers the bloody shaft and leaves the rat to the others.
Further on, Iris exhumes a chunk of moldy stucco—a thrilling moment since Lily doesn’t have that shade of green. She leverages the stucco into the cart beside the bow and visualizes Lily’s impish glee. Even in a wetsuit Iris feels sticky leakage from her tube.
The day’s last light shakes a dusty haze.
Closer to the moat, an unfamiliar scent assaults her. Sweet and salty. But not unpleasant. The fragrance lulls her, pulls her the rest of the way home.
Michelangelo hunches by the gate; ichor stains his whiskers.
Iris rushes by him, seeing her lovely reclining and naked, a primitive portrait. “Lily!”
Lily smiles, cradling a writhing bundle.
It lets out a wail, a cacophony of hope and promise.
Iris kneels beside her family and serenades them with song.
This story was previously published in Shoreline of the Infinity”’ (Scotland) December 2020.
Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her novel in free verse Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 features a tumultuous year in history. Shorter work has appeared in Oxford University Press, Los Angeles Times, Exposition Review, Confrontation, The Writer and forthcoming from Gargoyle, Gold Man Review, and F(r)iction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In a town where happiness is only temporary, a private dick can become a millionaire.
Hester Browning, Decade City’s best private investigator, walked down the street to her office one dreary Thursday morning, weaving her way down the pockmarked streets. They still showed the scars from the most recent gold riots, the craters now filled with scummy water deposits from last night’s torrential rains. There was just enough sunlight poking through the smog to reflect the smokestacks surrounding the town, and the Sulphur dioxide clouds speckling the skies.
Hester wasn’t expecting any clients to be waiting for her as she climbed the stairs to her office. Rains tended to keep the people away – at least until the acidity went down. As she rounded the corner on the 3rd floor, she used the toe of her newest Mary Jane pumps to nudge the carcass of a swamp rat towards the lawyer’s office. Whether the swamp rat had died on its own, or was planted, Hester didn’t know or care. But the ambulance chasers could have it as a mascot as far as she was concerned.
Shaking the last of the liquid poison off her coat, she opened her office door. The glass insert reading “H. Browning Detective Agency” rattled in its frame as she shut it, removing her raincoat and hanging in a metal cupboard labelled “HAZARD”. Her secretary, Cecil, was already at work, sorting through the phone messages, placing them in order of importance.
The H. Browning Detective Agency was unique in Decade City, in that they accepted all manner of clients. This is why all citizens of the town – from wildcatters to mine owners, burlesque dancers to the good-time boys - beat a path to her doorway. Hester prided herself on her no-nonsense manner in solving cases – not easy in this dangerous and desperate town – generally considered the worst on the fifth planet from the suns.
“Morning, boss”, Cecil rattled off without looking up. “Want a cup of java? Carlos has finally paid off his debt for the gun-for-hire case. It’s primo stuff.” He shuffled all but one pile of notices into the garbage bin.
Hester turned him down regretfully. “Thanks, Carlie but I don’t need any jitters today. I’m going to the Wildcat Café to pin down my snitch. And the way things are tightening up between the rival mining gangs, I’ll need all my wits around me.”
The intrepid duo slogged away on the more mundane aspects of the agency, dealing with billing and the odd client that made the muddy trek up the rickety stairs. The weather forecast was calling for yet more rain, so people were still sticking inside as much as possible.
Outside, the bitter bargaining for control over Decade City’s lucrative platinum mines was reaching a fever pitch. Tempers were on edge on even a sunny day – and the addition of precipitation was fueling the theatrics and rhetoric on all sides; the City was a tinder keg waiting to go off. Even if the planet’s atmosphere was too smoggy to see the cabal’s indoctrination screens, all the city’s residents – even the off-worlders -could feel the tension.
Despite the rain, Hester had to make her way through the shoddy shanty town of the Wildcat miners. She was desperate to solve the murder of her previous snitch – Nawal McDaniels had been garroted and tied to a three-stage pneumatic drill as a message from one of the mining companies. Which one, Hester had yet to find out. Nawal had been researching the corruption behind the bargaining process on her behalf. It was her fault Nawal was as stiff as a fossilized bearded mammoth. Until Nawal’s untimely and violent death, Hester had not realized matters had reached the critical tipping point into all out violence.
Now, after the perverse and twisted death of McDaniels, the Great Phosphor Fire of ’48 and the tightening of mining embargoes, it was clear that she had to step carefully. Hester refused to take the easy road and sweep the issue under the rug. She would solve this horrendous crime and make those bastards pay for they’d done. Not just because it was the right thing to do – a private dick needed to close all cases or risk losing her business.
As the clock drew closer to 5, time seemed to pass at a glacial speed. The clock chimed five on the dot at the same time a massive boom rocked the office, rattling the door window in its frame so hard it cracked. Hester and Cecil shared a foreboding glance with each other before racing to the window overlooking Decade City.
In the distance, in the direction of the Wildcat Café, the entire shantytown was now hidden by walls of flame and smoke. The dry tinders and cardboard construction of the shanties only fuelled the fire. Series of random booms continued to go off sporadically as Hester and Cecil continued to look on the scene in disbelief. They could hear the screaming and yelling of the assembled rioters over the mobilized tracks of the cabal tanks.
Cecil turned from the window, shaking his head. “It’s going to be a long night”.
Hester turned from the window and made her way to the cabinet marked “Hazard”. Tossing her raincoat onto the desk, she removed the hidden partition to reveal her stockpile of weapons. Sometimes the Private Detective had to move beyond using their keen sense of intuition and snitch networks and get the big guns involved.
With her semi-automatics and Dalekanium rocket launchers locked and loaded, Hester looked dangerous enough to deal with the desperation she was sure to find in Wildcat country. The addition of a brand-new pair of Mary Jane’s to her gun-fighter’s uniform took her beyond dangerous to an unpredictable menacer.
As she prepared to leave the office, she paused in the doorway, carefully placing the bandoliers of ammunition across her shoulders. “Leave the java on, Cecil. I’ll be back by daylight – with Nawal’s killer as a trophy. Take my messages for me – if they must know where I am, say I’m out on a hot date.”
Cecil saluted her as Hester left the office. “See ya, boss”.
As Hester walked past the swamp rat corpse, she hoped the undertakers on the second floor had a surplus handy. If she did her job correctly – they’d have a rush on coffins by morning.
Amanda Ellis is a writer of settler and indigenous descent. She has had works published in the journals Valiant Scribe, in(Parentheses) and Rabbit. She recently attended Sage Hill Writers’ Workshop and is a member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. She does not live in Saskatchewan, but enjoys rural vistas of cabbages as she wrangles ideas and her side hustle as a Social Justice warrior.
The dark eyes of Thaddeus Wells traced the back and forth swing of the steam yacht ride as though hypnotised. While he hadn't come for the gaudy fairground attractions, he nonetheless found himself enthralled by their grandiloquent mirth.
Excited children squealed from within the pendulous red and yellow boat which bore the name Cymric in gold lettering, after the recently launched overhyped passenger liner. Sailors could keep their godforsaken waterbound vessels, Thaddeus thought scornfully. Air travel was the way of the future. He should know, being the captain of an airship.
He tore his gaze away from the steam yacht Cymric as it swung almost perpendicular to the earth, and glanced up at the heavily darkened clouds. A storm was on the way.
His attention was drawn by the sound of pipe music, the tails of his black military coat with the striking red trim swirling like bat wings as he swivelled towards the source. A Parisian Gavioli et Cie organ, richly decorated in pastel pinks and blues, emitted the familiar rousing strains of Offenbach's Galop Infernal and brought to mind French dancing girls kicking their legs like the gazelles of Africa.
With his left hand, Thaddeus absently rubbed the brass forearm attached to his right elbow, a fully functioning masterpiece that gave him legitimate claim to the title of cybernetic organism, not that he ever referred to himself as such.
His eyes followed the rhythmic bob of the steam gallopers as they spun, whimsically painted wooden horses ridden by men and children alike, with a pair of long-skirted ladies tucked carefully into a carriage placed amongst the horses specifically for the purpose. Thaddeus curled his lip at this; he knew plenty of real-life equestriennes, and they all donned men's trousers and rode astride their horses when the prudish eyes of society weren't watching.
He moved on, first passing an overboats wheel filled with courting couples holding hands, then the bolted door of the master boiler room, where power for the entire fair was generated by a giant steam engine, not dissimilar to the one that powered his airship. He'd left the ship on Sumner Green, and while the rest of the crew had set off for Smith's Beer House, Thaddeus had headed purposefully in the opposite direction, towards Henderson's Steam Fair. But no, the rides were not what he'd come for. He was there for the much-publicised “Grand Unveiling of Dr Berkeley's Clockwork Gorilla.”
The gorilla was rumoured to be lifesized, a magnificent feat of modern engineering, though he had not heard of this Dr Berkeley before. Odd really, considering he was an engineer himself. And a damn good one too. Hell, he'd engineered his own right arm! He flexed his brass fingers as if to prove his skill as a clap of thunder rumbled across the skies.
His heavy black boots flattened the grass as he strode between a couple of small boys trying their luck, one with a ball at the coconut shy and the other with a rifle at the shooting saloon. The air was thick with the competing scents of fried fish and sweet confections, and the restive expectation of wild weather. Here was hoping it would hold off until after the unveiling of the gorilla. Thaddeus did not fancy getting wet.
He pushed away a dark strand of hair that had escaped from his peaked captain's hat, revealing a fascinating figure in his peripheral vision. She was tall, almost as tall as him, with a mane of auburn curls cascading down her back. A burgundy cape covered her shoulders, leaving her milky white decollatage on show above the corset-style top of her black lace dress, the layered skirt underset with masses of tulle. Her features were delicate, fairylike – a true beauty, Thaddeus thought.
She was accompanied by a pompously overdressed gentleman in a top hat and tails who had taken up a mallet, preparing to test his strength on the striker. His pale, puffed face was in contrast to Thaddeus' chiselled brooding sneer.
“I can't claim to be a circus strongman but I'll give it a crack,” the pale man prattled in a toff accent, eyes raking over his female companion as though she were a jar of candies. He raised the mallet aboved his head and pounded it down on the striker, causing the puck to jump barely a quarter of the distance towards the bell at the top.
Thaddeus snickered loudly.
The auburn beauty fixed him with a green-eyed stare.
“Think you can do any better?” she challenged in a stuck up tone.
Thaddeus gave a wry half-smile and stepped silently up to the striker. Ignoring the pale man's proffering of the mallet, he pushed up his sleeve to reveal his brass arm, fingers curled into an iron fist which he slammed down with a ferocity that sent the puck flying up so hard it left a dent in the deafeningly dinging bell.
“That's cheating,” the woman in lace sneered, looking coldly down her nose at him.
A look of recognition dawned across the pale man's face.
“I know who you are. You're the rogue engineer!”
“Captain Thaddeus Wells, at your service,” he said impishly, tipping his hat.
Rogue engineer. Ruddy cheek. Still, he couldn't deny it. He had been an engineer on a pirate airship for many a year, but his increasing objection to commands to design ever more lethal weapons had resulted in his leading a mutiny against the crew's bloodthirsty captain. That was how he had lost an arm and gained an airship. Now he designed wind up toys, and while a good portion of the ship's income came from the opium he smuggled within the toys, it was Thaddeus' objective to one day make an entirely honest living from his clockwork creations. Hence his keen interest in the breakthrough design from Dr Berkeley, whoever he was.
He strode over to the makeshift dais where the unveiling of the clockwork gorilla was due to take place in a matter of minutes. A crowd had already gathered, checking their pocket watches impatiently and pointing at a sheet of purple velvet which was presumably covering the star attraction. Thaddeus silently positioned himself at the rear, leaning casually against a wooden railing.
A diminutive man with a sensible moustache ascended the dais and clapped for attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys! Welcome indeed to Henderson's Steam Fair and thank you all for your kind attendance. It is time for the moment you've all been waiting for – the Grand Unveiling of Dr Berkeley's Clockwork Gorilla. May I present to you the renowned engineer Dr Adeline Berkeley.”
Thaddeus was astonished to see the lace-clad stunner striding confidently on to the dais, swaying like a temptress of myth. So this was Dr Berkeley. Beauty and brains. Pity about the attitude.
“And introducing her esteemed patron, Lord Werther Gladstone.”
The pompous pale toff joined her on stage, planting an exaggerated kiss on the back of her hand. Huh. Thaddeus wasn't a gambling man, but he would readily bet Gladstone was getting more for his money than feats of engineering.
“Now without any further ado, I invite Lord Gladstone to unveil Dr Berkeley's amazing clockwork gorilla!”
Gladstone whisked off the velvet sheet with a flourish, to an impeccably timed crack of thunder that made the crowd jump as one, then gasp at the lifesized creation on the dais before them.
Tall as a man, the mechanical creature was a convincing replica of one of the fabled gorillas of Africa. Its body was covered in a mystery black fur, save for the feet, hands and face which were of bare iron. The jaw was hinged and fitted with jagged steel teeth, while the eyes looked to be of amber. Lord Gladstone assisted Dr Berkeley in turning the giant winding key protruding from the gorilla's back. Then together they stepped back and allowed the spectacle to begin.
The gorilla walked, stride by mechanical stride, stepping neatly from the dais, great iron mitts swinging in time with its gait. The head swivelled from left to right, mechanised jaws grinding open and closed. Then the metal monkey halted and pounded its chest before resuming its steady march through the cheering crowd.
Thaddeus was transfixed. This was indeed a marvel of modern engineering. He would most definitely need to speak with Dr Berkeley about her achievement, in spite of her previously demonstrated disdain for him.
The sky illuminated with a great flash as a bolt of lightning surged towards the fair. The audience members shrieked and ducked as a current of electricity scored a direct strike to the gorilla's wind up key. The mechanical creature crackled with latent power, then burst forth at the devil's pace, storming into the assembled crowd with iron fists flailing, sending several people flying through the air as they scrambled for cover.
The manic gorilla beat its chest in a drumroll frenzy, then surged forward, heading straight for the roundabout. One after another, several brave men attempted to block its path but were taken down by the metal monster's great fists, their only success being to reroute it away from the roundabout and back the way it had come.
The deadly gorilla came pounding back towards the dais, where Dr Berkeley and Gladstone stood.
“There is an emergency stop button on its right shoulder!” Dr Berkeley said. “See if you can push it as the beast passes!”
Gladstone trembled as the manic machine pounded closer, his face turning even paler than usual. As the creature drew close, he let out a whimper and turned and ran. Dr Berkeley gritted her teeth and stood her ground, lunging at the last minute for the creature's shoulder. She was struck by its fist in midair and thrown to the ground, spitting blood. The gorilla hurtled on towards the steam yacht, where a group of children stood waiting their turn.
Thaddeus had sprinted in pursuit, and hesitated as he passed the fallen Dr Berkeley.
“Stop the gorilla!” she urged him.
He picked up his pace, gaining on the iron monkey as it approached the young children with fists waving around like wrecking balls.
Thaddeus grasped the gorilla's winding key, swivelling the creature away from the children and around to face him. He ducked beneath its iron fists and landed an uppercut with his own fist of brass to its mechanical jaw. The great metal head snapped back, the creature's limbs went limp, and backwards it toppled, hitting the ground with a metallic crash.
A cheer went up, applause showering down on Thaddeus along with the raindrops that had just started to fall.
Dr Berkeley limped over, her lace skirt torn and her face streaked with dirt and blood. She looked down at the fallen gorilla, then accusingly at Thaddeus.
“You ruined it!” she said indignantly.
Thaddeus gaped at her.
She used one elegant forefinger under his chin to push his mouth closed again.
“Never mind. I can build another. Thank-you for stopping it. How may I return the favour, Captain Thaddeus?”
Thaddeus gave a sly half-grin.
“My lady, as a designer of clockwork toys myself, I would appreciate you sharing some of your secrets with me.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Dr Berkeley said. “Let us talk over tea. Your place or mine?”
“That will depend on whether you are fond of airships, madam.”
"Long have I dreamed of taking to the skies! Head in the clouds, my mother always said. Lead the way, Captain!
Rainie Zenith is an Australian author with a penchant for pieces that fall broadly within the gothic fantasy realm. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies such as Tales of Blood and Squalor from Dark Cloud Press, and Halloween Frights & Autumn Delights from Fantasia Divinity. She is also a singer-songwriter. Find out more at rainiezenith.com
I stopped by the Lady Anarchist Café one fine summer evening, and ordered a red pepper crepe with black mushrooms and a Fizzy Lizzy. It was only open from twilight till dawn and it was fast approaching closing time.
The cafe was run by the descendants of Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Victoria Woodhull, so it was a fitting place to dine in for someone like me.
A mysterious woman in a large black and red hat came in and sat at my table. Her face was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“Are you interested in the planet Venus?” she asked, glancing at me sharply from under her brim, then looking away.
“Yes, as interested as anyone here,” I replied, taking a sip of my sizzling drink, stirring the popping foam with a swizzle stick shaped like a bomb’s wick. “Why do you ask?”
“I am a recruiter for a colony of women soon to be established there. We are looking for settlers, those unsatisfied with what was done on the Moon.”
“Ah yes, the disaster that is the Moon.” The Moon had become an industrial wasteland run by greedy corporate men.
“And where on that bright planet will this colony be?”
“We have settled in the cloud-communes above Venus, over the craters that still bear women’s names, continuing the ancient tradition. All the craters on that radiant but hellish planet (so beautiful from afar!) were long ago named after women, both famous and not.”
She paused, rifled through her handbag and pulled out a long sheet of paper. “Here is a partial list,” she said.
She read through the entire list beginning with A and ending with Z. It took quite a while and my dinner grew cold.
“I didn’t hear my name on your list,” I said. She handed it to me.
“Then you must change your name. For example, I am from the Voltairine Cloud-Commune, which floats over the crater that bears her name. To join us, you would have to change your name to Voltairine 340, as we currently have 339 members. Come join my Cloud-- be a Volt! We are named after the famous 19th-century anarchist, Voltairine Le Cleyre—so we are called the Volts.”
Then leaning forward, she said “Do you know who I am?”
I shook my head, still unsure.
“My name is Cassandra Cobb….. You may have seen me on the zip news or seen the photos of my grandmother, Jerrie Cobb, one of the only women who qualified to go to the moon in 1959. She had not been allowed to go, though tests results showed that females were more qualified for space: they could withstand isolation and stress better, and were lighter.
I remembered the image now—the woman pale-haired as the moon, wearing her old astronaut uniform, standing in a group picture of all men beside her.
“But now I can do what my grandmother could not,” she continued, “leave Earth, and take other women with me. As Voltairine herself once wrote, ‘Let yourself go free!’”
Of course I said yes. We stood up and she led me to the launch pad where the individual warp-twist jetpacks and astrosuits lay piled. It would take us five weeks to get to Venus, but it would be worth it.
Soon we were rising with the others. Hordes of women, like cities reorganizing skyward, a rocket-shaped outline of soaring women, with Cassandra at its helm.
We would colonize Venus with the granddaughters of the women flyers who had been denied the moon and the ancestors of the radical women of all centuries.
As we drew closer to the edge of the Cloud, I could make out the purple and silver spiral against black of the Goddess flag. Under this was the slogan: “Keep Venus for Women--Take Back the Light!”
Cassandra had explained that the Volts lived in an enclosed bubble community. They grew hydroponic vegetables on a collective farm run by the daughter of a former 1970s radical feminist. Other extremist groups lived in nearby clouds, or wanted to. A libertarian cloud-commune was getting ready to come up soon, and had reserved a nearby cloud zone, after negotiating with its current TAZ-Beyian neighbors.
We would dwell there happily in freedom-- all madwomen, anarchists, descendants of spurned astronauts, neglected scientists. Our new home was lit by the pale radiance of Earth, its blue-green swirling luminescence finally left behind. Cassandra told us that at Earth-rise, the others would greet us as we landed, to celebrate our arrival.
It’s been 20 years since I first met Cassandra at the Anarchist Café. Our cloud on Venus turned out to be the only one that has remained free, because of our stubborn devotion to our beliefs and each other.
Now Mercury is a solar panel farm, and Mars is a hamburger plantation settled by McDonald’s bondholders.
I have a granddaughter now, who has just graduated from the Interstellar Academy here.
I have told her my story many times, but she says she doesn’t mind hearing it again. She was cloned with the slightly randomized DNA from my cells.
On the anniversary of Voltairine de Cleyre’s birth, together we watch the celebration. Eerily beautiful, the red fireworks shoot off with Earth as their green backdrop, our own evening star.
She watches it with me, then turns and says, “I want to be like you, Gran, carry on the tradition.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I say.
“I want to go even farther, to the most distant galaxies, to found new interstellar colonies for the Volts--past what our science says can be reached.”
And I smile to myself thinking of what Voltairine said… “Turn cloudward, starward, letting oneself go free, go free beyond the bounds of what fear and custom call the ‘possible’”….
This story first appeared in Aphrodite Terra: Stories About the Planet Venus, Whippleshield Books, UK, 2016.
Lorraine Schein is a New York writer. Her work has appeared in VICE Terraform, Strange Horizons, Enchanted Conversation, and Little Blue Marble, in the anthology Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana del Rey & Sylvia Plath, and is forthcoming in Hybrid Fiction. The Futurist’s Mistress, her poetry book, is available from Mayapple Press: www.mayapplepress.com.
I wasn’t interested in earth-bound men. They bored me. I worked as an administration co-ordinator for Space Transporter Decontamination PLC, an occupation that provided me with ample opportunity for social interaction with the intergalactic pilots, who were more to my taste. These men and women who ventured beyond their planetary comfort zone were, of course, reputed to have a girl or a guy in every galaxy, but I was looking for fun, not commitment, so no problem.
The current object of my affections, Jake Jeffers, was being decontaminated following a jaunt in the Andromeda galaxy collecting soil samples from possibly inhabitable planets. I don’t work weekends so we'd arranged to meet on Saturday afternoon, after his clean-up. Our assignation point was the local garden centre, “Bulbs and Blooms”. Their cafe serves decent coffee and an assortment of cakes to die for.
I waited in the foyer. There were no seats and my new five-inch heels were torturing me, so I perched on the edge of a low plinth that housed an array of potted plants, kicked off my shoes and wiggled my tormented toes. The foyer walls were glass from floor-to-ceiling, and the sun filtered through. I closed my eyes and basked in its warmth.
“Found a good spot to get a tan?” The deep, masculine voice broke my reverie.
I opened my eyes to confront a bronze-skinned, six-foot hunk. “No,” I said. “I'm sitting on the Naughty Step.”
His booming laugh bounced off the glass walls. “How naughty were you?”
“That would be telling.”
A sour-faced woman called from the entrance to the conservatory furniture department, “Come on, Wallace. We haven’t got all day.”
Wallace. Good name, I thought. Echoes of Braveheart.
He winked at me and sauntered towards her. I closed my eyes again, and revised my opinion of earth-bound men.
Jake turned up wearing his intergalactic pilot uniform. He was a poseur but I didn’t mind. His space pallor detracted from the image of the dashing, off-world adventurer, but a few hours sunbathing in my back garden would put that right.
“You're looking good, Alice," He said.
“You look like death without the grin,” I said. “Let's get coffee and cake, then we'll set about putting the roses back in your cheeks.”
We ordered two cappuccinos, strawberry gateau for him, and banoffee pie with cream for me. My grandfather would have described our waitress as a buxom wench. The cafe employees are known to be fond of sampling the confectionery on display. It plays havoc with their waistlines but it puts a smile on their faces.
After Jake had devoured his gateau I asked, “How was Andromeda?”
“Okay, but there’s no place like the Milky Way.”
“True. Stay at my house for a few days. Get the sun on your face and start to look human again.”
“Thanks, but I have a better idea. I'm taking another trip tomorrow. Come with me.”
“I thought you were glad to be back.”
“I am, but there's something I want to show you, and we have to go outside the galaxy to see it.”
I’d been in space a few times before, but I wouldn't miss the chance to go again. The views were spectacular. “Okay, why not?”
“Good, now eat up and let's go back to yours and sunbathe, or whatever.”
I licked a remnant of cream off my fork, we passed our dishes to the smiling banoffee babe who came to clear our table, and we headed for the car park.
I spotted Wallace and Sour-Face loading flat-pack furniture into a Land Rover. She was supervising. “Not like that, Wallace. Shove it further down. Turn that one round the other way and put this one on top…”
We walked past them and I glanced back. He was watching me. I winked.
Next morning Jake and I arrived at the transporter station and signed a disclaimer absolving STD of any responsibility if we died before returning to Earth.
We were then allowed to enter a transporter. Jake sealed the sparsely furnished metal cell's safety doors, entered the destination co-ordinates into the control panel, and activated the transporter beam. The molecules that made up everything behind the sealed doors dispersed, and reassembled at a point somewhere beyond the outer arms of the Milky Way. After the normal bout of nausea passed, I looked at the viewer and saw the spiral spread across the heavens. I’d seen it before but it never failed to make my mascara run.
Jake pointed to a dark blot at the galaxy’s centre. “I suppose you know what that is, Alice.”
“It’s a black hole,” I said.
“What do you know about it?”
I had an uneasy feeling, and sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. “I know that anything in its orbit gets sucked in and shredded atom from atom.”
He stared at me through glazed eyes. I'd heard that space madness is an occupational hazard. Too much galaxy hopping can cause loss of perspective and a tendency to go bonkers. The pilots of my acquaintance were all young and fit, so I’d not given the problem much thought, but Jake was scaring me. He said, “What you’re describing is an observer's perception of reality, but anyone approaching the black hole would perceive a different reality, in which they remain whole and unhurt.”
I tried to keep my voice steady. “Who said that?”
“I see. Well, I'd rather not test the theory, if you don't mind.” With due respect to the late great Professor Hawking, my perception of reality included a bronze-skinned, six foot hunk and a hefty slice of banoffee pie. There was no room on the menu for a black hole.
Jake took a step towards the control panel. “Where’s your sense of adventure? I’ve worked out the co-ordinates and I'm taking us in.”
My head spun, my throat felt dry, and I looked around for a weapon. A Hostile Extra-terrestrial Neutraliser, HEN for short, was hanging on the wall. It resembled a black metal air-freshener spray can. I grabbed it, and not wishing to neutralise Jake, I bashed him over the head with it. He crumbled at my feet, out cold. Stepping over his body I entered the co-ordinates for home into the panel, and activated the beam.
After the nausea passed I unsealed the doors and yelled for a paramedic. The medic on duty was Wei Yen, my accomplice on many a riotous girls’ night out. “What happened?” she said, wheeling a trolley into the transporter. “Did he flip?”
“Yeah. Wanted to fling us into a black hole.”
“Often happens. That’s why the pilots are all insured to the hilt. The company can claim the cost of replacing missing transporters.”
“What about the missing pilots?”
She shrugged, “Who knows? I hope they find what they’re looking for.”
We lifted Jake onto the trolley. I said, “Do you think he’ll be okay?”
“Depends what you did to him.”
“I cracked his skull with a HEN.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll give him a brain scan and repair any physical damage. After therapy and a few months in rehab he’ll be serviceable again. What about you, Alice? You look frazzled.”
“I’ve had a weird couple of days that have changed my perception of reality.”
“Take a week’s sick leave. Now, get out of this madhouse and go home.”
I stepped outside, onto my sunlit native planet. The twentieth-century astronaut, Jim Lovell, had called her The Good Earth. He was right. She’s the pearl of the Milky Way and she’s where I belong.
I spent a relaxing few days at home, and the following Saturday afternoon I drove to “Bulbs and Blooms”. Some primitive instinct told me that Wallace would be hovering around the naughty step.
He was. “Hi,” he said, “You been naughty again?”
“Perish the thought.”
He held out his hand. “I’m Wallace.”
I shook it. “I’m Alice. We rhyme.”
“So we do. Where's Luke Skywalker?”
“Oh, I'm sorry. Is he your boyfriend?”
“No, he’s a colleague. I work for STD.”
“Space Transmitted Diseases, right?”
“Close enough. Is the bossy lady your girlfriend?”
He shook his head. “My sister. She’s in her conservatory, assembling flat pack furniture.”
“I thought she'd order you to do that.”
“So did she, but I escaped. Fancy a coffee?”
“I thought you'd never ask.”
“I hear the cakes are pretty good,”
“They are. I can recommend the banoffee pie.”
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in Wales. She has had 135 stories and poems accepted for paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 Alban Lake published an anthology of her stories, 'Whispers of Magic'. She loves her family and friends, rock 'n' roll, Shakespeare and cats.
Mrs Wattinger pretended to be engrossed in the latest issue of Home Instyle, but her eyes scanned the article on page fifty-six without seeing it. Her full attention was on Rita.
Rita’s full attention was on Mrs Wattinger’s kitchen. She glided across the Italian marble flooring with the grace of a figure skater, spray bottle in one hand, dust cloth in the other. Every now and then she would give a dainty little squirt and pause to wipe at the granite bench top in an efficient circular motion. Rita hummed as she went about her work. Mrs Wattinger recognised the tune as one of Dr Wattinger’s favourites. She ground her teeth as she sipped at the tea Rita had made for her.
“He likes me better than you.”
Mrs Wattinger jolted so forcefully her tea spilled from the bone china cup and burned her hand. “What? What did you just say?”
Rita turned surprised eyes in her direction. “Why, nothing, Mrs Wattinger. Oh, you’ve spilled your tea. Let me clear that up for you.” She hurried around the bench and dabbed at the brown liquid with her cloth.
As she did so, her cascade of strawberry blonde hair brushed Mrs Wattinger’s shoulder. ‘Fuck me’ hair, that’s what it was. Of all the hairstyles Rita could have come with, Dr Wattinger had selected the strumpet’s mane. He’d even named her after his starlet crush, Rita Hayworth. Foolish old man.
“Oh no, you’ve hurt your hand.” Rita’s voice oozed concern. She reached for Mrs Wattinger’s hand to inspect the red bloom the hot tea had made. Mrs Wattinger couldn’t help but notice the contrast: Rita’s hands were milky and unblemished whereas her skin was mottled with the faded beginnings of liver spots.
“Just leave it.” Mrs Wattinger snapped. She wrenched her hand free, shuddering at the grotesquely human feel of Rita’s latex skin. “I’m going upstairs for a lie down.” Mrs Wattinger whirled from the room. As she strode up the stairs she was sure she heard a sly titter from the kitchen below.
In the coolness of her bedroom, Mrs Wattinger dabbed a blend of peppermint and lavender oil at her temples. She inspected her face for a long time in the mirror, then lay down on the crisp cotton and drew the netted curtain around the bed. She reflected on what she had heard (imagined) Rita say. It was her own silly fault, she supposed. She had nagged Dr Wattinger for an iMaid for the better part of a month. Initially he had balked not only at the exorbitant price tag, but also at the sheer indulgence of the idea.
“Why must you always be so ostentatious?” he asked, shaking his head at the online catalogue as Mrs Wattinger tapped petulantly at the monitor with a lacquered nail.
“It’s nothing of the kind,” she had huffed. “Besides, Violetta Strachan has one and—”
“Of course. One wouldn’t want to be outdone by the Strachans.”
Mrs Wattinger had ramped it up a notch then. She sulked and raged and tearfully accused Dr Wattinger of being a neglectful husband. When that didn’t work she tried a week of silence peppered with icy stares. Finally, she resorted to the old adage of catching more flies with honey than vinegar. She rose early to cook breakfast. She greeted him with perfumed smiles and dutifully asked about his day. She even did that thing that he liked in bed. When she raised the subject of the iMaid again, she did it playfully and coquettishly, and even suggested he could design his own model. Dr Wattinger had buckled and thirteen days later Rita had arrived.
Mrs Wattinger had tired of her quickly. After all, their apartment was only small, and there was only so much housework to be done (as Dr Wattinger had pointed out, Mrs Wattinger reflected with a pang).
Dr Wattinger however was delighted with Rita. The iMaid was always irritatingly cheerful. She encouraged his jokes with tinkling laughter that made her hair and latex bosom bounce. She fawned over him at dinner time and searched her programming for all his favourite meals. Mrs Wattinger would often find them chatting together animatedly at the breakfast table when she came down stairs. Sometimes their talk would dry up when she entered the room and Rita would jump up from her seat and busy herself with the breakfast plates. Dr Wattinger would shake his newspaper and smile at Mrs Wattinger sheepishly. When Mrs Wattinger took her seat and poured her juice she could feel the ice-blue stare of the iMaid’s synthetic eyes boring into her back.
Yes, Rita would have to go. Once Mrs Wattinger had made her mind up she felt a little better. When she woke from her nap, she would dig out the warranty papers that accompanied the iMaid and see what she could do about getting her returned. With this thought on her mind she closed her eyes.
Rita brushed the net curtain aside and looked at Mrs Wattinger for a long time. Finally she bent down and placed a hand over Mrs Wattinger’s mouth and pinched her nostrils together. Her automated face was expressionless as she applied the maximum force her programming afforded.
Mrs Wattinger’s eyes flew open in horror. Her hands formed claws that clutched and raked futilely at the iMaid’s skin.
“Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful,” Rita whispered. She watched as the life eventually drained from Mrs Wattinger’s face and her feet ceased beating their drum like rhythm on the counterpane.
Rita then removed her apron and floral housedress. She opened Mrs Wattinger’s underwear drawer and rifled through the garments. After consideration, she selected a filmy baby blue negligee and slipped it over her head. It hugged her latex breasts and genitalia exquisitely.
Rita walked downstairs and positioned herself seductively in Dr Wattinger’s armchair. The clock on the kitchen wall ticked away the hours as she waited for him to arrive home.
Originally published in FutureCycle Anthology 2012 (FutureCycle Press)
Rebecca Fraser is an award-nominated Australian author whose short stories, flash fiction, and poetry has appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines, and journals. Her first novel Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean was released in 2018, and her collection Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract is due for release in 2021, both through IFWG Publishing Australia. Rebecca holds a MA in Creative Writing, and a Certificate of Publishing (Copy Editing & Proofreading). To provide her muse with life’s essentials Rebecca copywrites and edits in a freelance capacity and operates StoryCraft Creative Writing Workshops for aspiring authors of every age and ability…however her true passion is storytelling. Say G’day at writingandmoonlighting.comor Twitter and Instagram @becksmuse.