Category Archives: Issue 21

We Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka

The snow crunches under our boots as us-in-Devora and us-in-Mel trace our way through the Forest-That-Thinks. We pause, waiting for directions.

That way.

Sunlight pierces through the low-slung clouds. The Forest speaks again and there’s a picture in our minds of the Very-Big-Wrong and the image of a landing site appears in our head. We have not thought of landing sites for a very long time.

What do you think it is? Us-in-Mel asks, mind-to-mind.

Us-in-Devora shakes her head and shrugs. I do not know.

Is it food? Us-in-Mel scoops a pile of dead Leaves from the ground on which we stand and crams them into our mouth. That part of us is always hungry.

I. Don’t. Know.

Faster! screams the Forest, and we snap to attention.

As we sprint to the landing site, Us-in-Mel makes careful blazes in the Forest’s thick trunks. It wouldn’t do to wander off—not when there’s a Very-Big-Wrong somewhere, loose and so close.

Us-in-Devora is the first of us to stumble into the clearing to the landing site covered with a fine layer of snow. She-that-is-us paces around it, careful not to step on the pieces of us that were broken off at the Wrong. Our nose wrinkles.

Smelly, she says, her mind-speak betraying her disgust.

It’s… Mel grasps for a word, but can’t come up with a better one. Smelly. Yes.

We pick up a stick, a stray dead part of us, and poke the thing in the clearing. It stirs.

26 January 2564

Today we enter the outer fringe of the Horsehead Nebula, a dismal little planet called Fleming-7, where two standard years ago we lost communication with sixty-five Terran colonists. A recovery team has been rallied to recover what we can from the ill-fated mission, laying to rest the suspicions and fears of their families.

I know I shouldn’t question the motivations of Central Control, but this is a fool’s errand. It’s a waste of time to hunt about for dead bodies on some lousy backwater. With any luck we’ll find what we’re looking for quickly, and I will be home soon to my precious Bianca, waiting for me in stasis, unwilling to lose our life together to such a distant journey.

At least I’ll get overtime, if we’re lucky.

End transmission,

We poke at the not-us on the ground for a good long time, until it turns over, coughs, and sits up, rubbing its face with its hands. It blinks, looking at us as we look at it.

“You’re alive?” It reaches for something at its waist, then reels back its hand.

“Of course we’re alive,” us-in-Mel says in the mouth-voice, Leaves falling from our lips. “Are you alive?”

“Am I alive?” The not-us scoots back.

“That’s what we asked,” says Devora. “You don’t have to answer now if you don’t know.”

The not-us stands and scrambles back to the site of the Wrong. It pulls out a little black box and pushes a button on the side. “I’m going to have to call this in. Just…stay there. Stay right there.”

Silly it-thing! we think. Where else would we go, if not the Wrong? Because it is wrong, and because it lies at the heart of the Forest-That-Thinks, we can’t exactly leave it alone.

While we wait for the not-us to finish with its black box, we play one of our favorite games. Devora ducks behind one of the huge trunks, while the us-who-is-Mel scampers behind another.

Marco, Devora thinks.

Polo, Mel thinks.

And we think as one, and because of this, we are happy.


8 February 2564

Unexpected complications have arisen. Several of the doomed colonists are alive, though badly traumatized from their experiences. Spectral analysis performed remotely aboard the ship has determined the overabundance of unusual compounds in the heartwood of the trees.

Aside from the trees and the colonists, there is no other life.

The survivors of the crash will be briefed, decontaminated, and brought aboard the ship. The properties of the planet must be investigated as well, for their usefulness and potential profit to Central Control.

I do wonder if there’s a way to spin this to my advantage. The euphoric, almost childlike state of the colonists leads me to believe that the alien compounds might fetch a good price on Terra. We’ll run tests, of course. Still, how fortunate it would be to return a rich man. That would almost make these months of isolation worth it, both for me and for Bianca.

End transmission,

We are in turmoil.

The Very-Big-Wrong, the it-thing from the landing site, has invaded the settlement, the place where the we-that-are-mobile gather to speak, to screw, and to eat of Leaves and body-food. We begged and pleaded at it and asked the Forest-That-Thinks to give us permission to use force to repel the intruder.

No, said the Forest.

But why? asked us-in-Devora.

He is of use. And then the Forest-That-Thinks did the cruelest thing it can ever do, shutting us off from it, so that Devora and Mel could only speak mind-to-mind in whispers, and they couldn’t hear the others of us very much at all.

Sometimes, we do not like the Forest-That-Thinks.

The intruder strode into the settlement with great bounce in its step. It is no longer afraid of us. And because we don’t want to be forever shut off from the Forest-That-Thinks by fighting back, it has no reason to be afraid of us.

We are powerless.

It has been here for seventeen cycles of the light that shines behind the cloud cover: seventeen dusks, sixteen darks. Refusing to eat either our food or the sap of the forest, it lacks Understanding. It will not speak with us except through the mouth, and only a few of us retain that primitive method of communication. Those who do are resentful at having to translate everything for the Wrong.

It is Wrong, after all! We are Right! Why has the Forest-That-Thinks forsaken us?

Forest has reasons, us-in-Devora says. Her real voice is barely a whisper compared to the ugly mouth-voice.

You trust too easily, us-in-Mel replies.

Maybe, she says, eyeing the intruder. It is breaking off one of our Branches, and our heart catches at the pain. Maybe not.

15 February 2564

Through observation and conversation with the other members of the crew, I’ve determined that the compounds secreted by the sap of the native trees seem to induce a weak telepathic ability in the stranded colonists. It’s a little scary to know how easily they can talk behind my back. If they weren’t so subservient, I might start to get paranoid.

Physically, the colonists are weak as kittens. The sap that opens their minds to one another betrays the body, and as a result the colonists are completely spotted with tumors of all sizes, making them look a bit like bags of rocks with faces. It brings to mind the terminal form of that ancient disease, cancer.

The other day, I caught a colonist eating his own tumors, using his thick fingernails to slice open the epidermis and ferret the tumor from his body. Then he popped it in his mouth like a cherry. I shuddered when I saw that. Must investigate further.

The crew sends cans of food down the elevator, but they won’t come down themselves, the big babies. Certainly, my bravery will earn me special mention from Central Control when we get back to Terra.

I hope so, anyway.

End transmission,

The intruder wears a mask around its mouth now and swathes its body in linens dropped from the ship in the sky. It doesn’t fear us, but it fears the Understanding.

To be fair, a few days ago, some of the us-that-are-mobile did try to put the sap in its mouth. And it did roar mightily about that with its mouth-voice, and it did hit several of us. The one-that-was-Mel died.

And yet, the Forest-That-Thinks remains silent. Help us, you who are also us!

But we will not stray, we will not allow the individual desires and hungers that once ruled us like iron fists to dictate our actions now. To do so would remove us from the grace of our Forest.

That would be suicide.

The intruder set up its camp at the edge of our settlement. There it stays, crouching, waiting. For what, we do not know. It speaks into its little black box with its horrible mouth-voice. It eats from silver cans. Its bright orange inflatable hut is like its ugly mind, a shield that hides it from the Community. When it questions us, which is often, it forces us to speak with our mouth voices, because it cannot yet speak the true language.

It laughs at us. It thinks we-who-are-mobile have forgotten the way we used to be. “I could fix you. Cut out those tumors, synthesize an agent to work against the tree sap.”

“No,” one of us says. “Not that.”

It lowers its eyes. “I could make you.”

We flinch when it says that. We have seen the power in the intruder, the way it cast us-in-Mel aside. We don’t want to be cast aside to die. Even though we are but instances of the Community, each of us still clings stubbornly to our own facet of life.

“Please don’t,” we say. “Please.”

It just laughs some more, that hideous noise smearing the perfect silence of our world.

Us-in-Devora travels often to see the intruder. She watches it from the bushes near its camp, and through her eyes, we see it too. At first we could see it brightly, as if with our very own eyes. Now, we can barely see it at all. We-who-are-mobile are very worried about us-in-Devora.

28 February 2564

The crew grows impatient. Ever since I came down they’ve been requesting a departure timetable. I know my faithless crew is reading these entries, so here’s your timetable: we’ll go when I say we go.


I have studied the sap of what they call the “forest that thinks” more in depth, and have determined that it is indeed highly carcinogenic. Why these people are alive, I have no idea. Nor do I know what triggers the telepathic sense. In all my weeks here, I haven’t felt a trace of the “mind voice.” Surely it must be controlled by the sap, or the tumors the sap generates.

Sometimes I wish I could taste it.I have made contact with a local. Research into the ship’s manifest reveals her to be one Devora Mikelski, a first-year xenobiology student undoubtedly chosen more for her looks than her grades. She displays no real curiosity about the properties of the forest that surrounds most of this snow-covered world. Like a little puppy, she follows me when I go out to study the trees, though she looks away when I take core samples from the thick, fibrous trunks. She allows me to palpate her many tumorous growths and take photographs. (See attached.) When I am around her, I wear a form-fitting mask, in case she tries to slip a bit of sap into my mouth or nostrils. She hasn’t tried recently. She obeys me utterly.

It’s quiet here, so very quiet. Sometimes, just to break the silence, I sing Bianca’s favorite songs at the top of my lungs, those awful jazz-rock hits she liked to listen to on the infobursts. The colonists cower, like I’m hurting them. But I’m not hurting them, right?

So what if I am? I’m lonely.

Transmission over,

Devora washes the intruder’s spare masks and linens. We arrange its tins of food. We sweep the small inflatable dwelling with a soft-bristled brush, and try not to shudder when the intruder strokes our mounds of body-food and calls us “beautiful, in your own way.”

We grit our teeth. We remind ourselves that eventually, it will see the truth. We take the long view.

“It hurts,” us-in-Devora says through her mouth. The resentment we feel when we look at the intruder is as vast as the silver belly of its ship.

The intruder looks up from its mutilation of a branch plucked from the Forest, a piece still alive when it was severed. “What hurts, honey?”

We shake our head, thinking of us-in-Mel, the instance of the Community that Devora had cared for most. Our head glistening with blood and sap, our limbs shattered. “Nothing.”

Devora looks no more at the silent Forest-That-Thinks. We close our minds to the rest of us. We practice the unfamiliar pronoun which the intruder forces us to say.

“She,” says the intruder, jabbing at Devora’s body-food with a scalpel. “She. She.”

And it is a he, and to the intruder this means something profound.

She-is-Devora doesn’t bother listening to the rest of us anymore. Our voices are too faint to hear. She takes the medication the intruder provides and lets it rip the voice-giving structures right out of her body. She gazes into the mirrored pool outside the intruder’s inflatable hut, and retches.

It’s time. “When can we leave for Terra?” she asks, affecting her best traumatized-survivor impersonation.

The Wrong, it grins.

4 March 2565

Departure is nigh. I have only one week to pack my meager belongings and finish up my anthropological notes. Unfortunately, it would take several lifetimes to give justice to all I’ve experienced here.

Only one of the doomed colonists will accompany me back to Terra: Devora Milkelski, my little assistant. She has allowed me to remove the tumors from her body, though she cried when I did it. I tried to comfort her, but it didn’t help.

I’ve taken my last samples of sap and of bark, and while the colonists certainly did complain about it, I only had to sing one of Bianca’s songs to make them flee in terror at the shattering of their silence. How fast they fall, how weak they are in this environment. Even if they wanted to return to Terra, I’m not sure they could withstand the gravity or rapid pace of life. Only Devora seems excited to see her home planet after so many years away.

I asked her how much she remembered.

“Not very much,” she responded, running her hands over her fixed body. “The forest took so much from us, but you have restored it.”

Isn’t that wonderful? I’m her hero. And heroes deserve a reward, and I have been away from Bianca for a long, long time.

End transmission,


She-is-Devora watches us through a wall of frosted glass, one only she can tell is there. We send our thoughts and emotions to her, but they patter against the glass like the flying creatures we vaguely remember from Terra.

Goodbye, says us-in-Malik.

Farewell, says us-in-Qin.

The voices are so far-away, like transmissions through a shattered ansible, the Community must open their mouths and speak the words to she-is-Devora through our little-used larynxes. The voices come out ugly, nails on rusted steel. At the edge of the camp, the Wrong’s face crumples.

She-is-Devora responds in tears.

She packs her rucksack from the corner one of the inflatable pods the members of the Community abandoned when they landed, before they were the Community, before they had known such love. In the depths, she places a package wrapped in a layer of Leaves, and covers it with the clothing the intruder insists she wear.

Boots crunching through the snow, she returns to the invader, to the it-him. Her nutrient-stripped body is swathed in his castoff linens. Her hand encloses a sachet of sap.

“Take me back.”

We watch behind the wall only she-is-Devora can see, and we mourn. The loss of any of us is a loss beyond measuring. However bad it is for us, it is worse for Devora. Locked away from Understanding, one is but a shadow, a Branch broken from its Trunk.

Devora slips the sachet of sap between her teeth. As the elevator starts to rise, the intruder sweeps her up into his arms, tongue reaching down into the very depth of her-the-former-us.

Devora doesn’t say no.

The intruder’s eyes widen as we welcome a new member into the Community. When he falls from the elevator we are there to receive him. Receive us.

Our Bianca,

We must report that our return to Terra is permanently cancelled. We have found a place that surpasses even the pleasures of Terra, which disappears in our estimation as a shooting star disappears over the farthest horizon.

The body in which this instance of we resides can no longer stand, no longer walk to commune with the Forest-That-Thinks. It is no matter. We carry us wherever we wish to go. We carry us to the river, we carry us to the lake of snow and to the clearing where we can see the Very-Big-Wrong, the “landing site” that was once so important to us, but is no longer.

Sometimes, when us-in-me lies in this frozen body, as gobbets of body-food are pushed into our mouth by the other pieces of us, we think of you similarly frozen in your stasis chamber, and wish that you could experience all that we do. How dreadful it is to be alone! How unnatural!

Us-in-Me have no way of sending this transmission, it is but a thought projected into the minds of all who share the Understanding. We hope you-who-are-not-us are happy, wherever you are. And now we will think no more of you, for such things are irrelevant.

We remain,

She-is-Devora is painfully alone, in a way she hasn’t been since arriving on the planet the crew calls Fleming-7, but that she only knows as home.

Two of the crew members say she-is-Devora pushed the one named Gabriel from the elevator, while three say it was an accident. But after she puts a little sap in their first-cycle coffee, it doesn’t matter. In the greenhouse, she buries the fist-sized Seeds she hid in her rucksack for future transplant.

It takes longer for the tendrils of the crew’s minds to reach outwards and entangle with one another and with hers. It takes weeks for them to become us. With so few people, it’s not the intense Understanding of the world swiftly slipping away through layers of black space, but it’s a start.

She-us is no longer alone.

“How many people live on Terra now?” Devora asks them-us.

“Much the same as when you left,” they reply. “Seventeen billion.” Devora’s heart soars to think of so many people joined in the mind-voice. She knows they feel the same.

When the first body-food is ripe, she-us shows them-us how to harvest it.

It will take years for Terra to become a true Community, all members knit together in harmony. Without the Forest-That-Thinks to boost the mind-voice, it will take even longer. But we will wait for the Understanding to take root, for all to think as one. It is a thing worth waiting for.

After all, we take the long view.


Erica L. Satifka’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Ideomancer, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Rob and too many cats. Visit her online at

Erica Satifka
Erica Satifka


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Shimmer #21: The Drinking Game, Part 2

Shimmer-21-CoverIn my editorial for issue #21, I played around with the notion of drinks for the stories, being that Shimmer was twenty-one and legal to drink. And then I thought “hey, drinks for stories.” Thus, we present to you drinks for each of the stories in Shimmer #21!

Our drinking game concludes with drinks from Andrew Romine, and Brooke Bolander!


Drink of the Fisherman’s Wife (for “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”)
by Andrew Penn Romine

1.5 oz Mezcal
.5 oz Campari
.5 oz Punt e Mes
careful pinch of sea salt
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a rocks glass. Express swath of orange peel over drink to release the oils, then drop peel into glass for garnish.

A.C. Wise’s wonderfully evocative “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” conjured up intense imagery of the salty sea, the tang of smoke, and the passions of the blood. I like strong flavors, and I wanted to create a drink that honored these three visceral components of Wise’s story.

I chose mezcal for its smooth, resinous smokiness, and also because it pairs well with citrus. Campari is a favorite too, a strong, bitter citrus-flavored liqueur that adds bite to any drink. In this case, it also helps to give the cocktail a ruddy cast. Punt e Mes is a strongly flavored vermouth that balances the bitter components with a subtle sweetness.

Angostura bitters are a pretty standard way to round out any drink, but here I also added a small pinch of sea-salt to give an extra bite to the finish. A swath of orange peel is the perfect garnish, and the citrus helps brighten and clarify both the aroma and flavor.

I’d like to think both wife and husband would pass the interminable hours of longing between their waking dreams imbibing a few of these!




The Us-In-You (for “We Take the Long View”)
by Brooke Bolander

Between 1/2 and 3/4ths of an oz Laphroaig
1/2 oz Four Roses Single Batch Bourbon
1/2 oz Lapsang simple syrup  (a good recipe can be located here)
1/4 oz Root liqueur

Combine ingredients with ice in shaker. Shake for 10 seconds or until your hands are as cold as snow-covered branches. Strain over more ice, finish with a sprig of rosemary. Note the immediate burst of earth and peat from the scotch, the more subtle maple-sap flavour of the bourbon, and the distant pine smoke of the Lapsang. The sharp wintergreen sweetness of the Root liqueur rounds out the flavour profile. Drink one and you’ll feel the Forest’s love; two and you may experience some mild telepathy. Enjoy!

If you haven’t read Shimmer #21, get a copy and a drink and settle in!
Our bartenders:

Andrew Penn Romine lives in Los Angeles where he works in the visual effects and animation industry. A graduate of the 2010 Clarion West workshop, his fiction appears online at Lightspeed Magazine, Paizo and Crossed Genres as well as in the anthologies FungiWhat Fates Impose, By Faerie Light, Coins of Chaos, and Help Fund My Robot Army. You can find his full list of publications at the Bibliography link. He’s also contributed articles to Lightspeed/Fantasy Magazine and blogs at Inkpunks. He also blogs about cocktails as The Booze Nerd. You can also follow his day-to-day adventures on Twitter: @inkgorilla.

Brooke Bolander is a human in an ill-fitting person suit pretending to be a writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and many other fine publications. When not concocting potions for Shimmer, she enjoys kittens, long walks on the beach, and updating her website, You can reach her on Twitter at @BBolander, if so inclined.

E. Catherine Tobler likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, she’s not much into health food, but is into champagne.

Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, by A.C. Wise

The fisherman’s wife breathes out, and tendrils of smoke curl around her. She listens to the tide inside and out — salt sea and salt blood, eroding shores of sand and making a hollow space within her skin and bones. She listens, and the ebb and flow tells her what she does not want to hear.

She needs no doctor to know: When the moon swells to full, she will bleed again.

A sigh laced with more smoke. This time, for just an instant, the tendrils thicken, become solid. One brushes her cheek, chasing salt slipped from within to without, aching to join to sea. The fisherman’s wife starts, but doesn’t move, holding her body quivering-taut.

The touch does not withdraw. Cautious, she pulls on the pipe again, adding more smoke, more weight. The first tendril, more a tentacle now, is joined by a second and a third. One slips past parted lips; one traces the edge of her parted robe and curls around the swell of a breast that isn’t as full as she wishes.

Dive. She feels the word against her flesh, then the smoke is gone. She shudders, hairs rising, skin puckering tight.

It was a dream. Was it?

She draws her robe close, tucks her legs up, and waits for her husband to come home.

Below the pier where their hut crouches — all one room and no place to hide — waves surge, bringing the scent of green weeds wrapped around wooden piles. The fisherman’s wife raises her head from the drawn-up pillow of her knees. Through sleep-puffed eyes, she squints at the edge of the lowered shades. Still daylight. She didn’t mean to doze. Outside, seabirds call, squabbling over fish guts baked dry by the sun.

She rises as her husband steps through the door. The fish-stink on him is laced with sweat. It is his scent, her scent, the scent of their life together, and for a moment it breaks her. Her eyes sting, but no more salt falls.

The boards creak, the light changes as her husband shifts, uncertain, as though afraid of and for her until she folds into him. Her hands go to the nape of his neck, the small of his back. His fingers meet and lace together between her shoulder blades, pulling her close. There is black blood under her nails and his fingers are calloused from tying knots, casting nets, hauling lines. They are the hands of a fisherman and a fisherman’s wife. They fit together, two halves of a whole.

“No.” She murmurs the word against his throat, breathing in the salt-sweat of him, answering his unspoken question. It is the same answer she gave last month, and the month before. He softens a moment, before tightening his grip, fingers stroking her spine to soothe.

She shivers, reminded of…what? Should she tell him of the dream that wasn’t a dream, the word spoken into her jaw by a smoke-tentacle, caressing her tongue?

The fisherman draws back, concern in his eyes. “Wife? What is wrong?”

She shakes her head. “Only a chill wind from the sea.”

The fisherman’s wife rises. Is she sleeping still? If she glances back to the pool of moonlight holding her husband in their tangled sheets will she see herself lying beside him, chest moving steady with the in-out tide of breath? She steps outside, barefoot; from the pier to the sand, to the edge of the shore where the water traces a silver line against her toes.

She sheds her robe. The memory of poppy-smoke lies heavy on her tongue, slicks her throat, slows her blood. Could it be a vision? Must it be a dream? Salt-tinged breeze stirs her black hair, all loosed down her back. Cold slaps her skin as she steps into the waves. Deeper. Her hair spreads like an octopus’ legs, spilled ink on the sea.


Underwater, she opens her eyes. It is bright as the noon day sun. There is so much life, color everywhere. Above-wave, the world is grey and increasingly dull, whether with poppy-sheen or age, the fisherman’s wife cannot say. She knows only that with each year that passes there is more emptiness. It is not just want of a child. She feels the changing of the world within her bones. It is drying up, falling silent. But underwater, armies march. Children play. A blind man sculpts coral into delicate figures with too many eyes. Women with shark skin and shark teeth tend kelp gardens. Buildings crumble and rise again. The world, drowned, is reborn.

A shape darts at the corner of her eye — smoke made solid. She reaches after it as it slips past. A tentacle coils around her wrist, strokes her palm.

This is and was and can be again. All you have to do is choose.

The fisherman’s wife blinks, disoriented. The current has tugged her, turned her; the many-limbed creature is gone.

The blind old man takes her hand. “Mother,” he says and kisses her cheek. Even below the waves, his lips are paper dry.

A little girl leaves the army march to press a bouquet of sea anemones into her hand. “Mother,” she says, before swimming away.

Silver bright fish form an aura around her. Their mouths open and close. “Mother,” they say.

Eels and sharks and starfish and whales join the chorus, repeating the word. It booms like thunder, a low, reverberating note rolling out from the epicenter of her being, stirring a tidal wave to wash away the land.

“I don’t understand,” she tries to say, but salt-water floods her mouth.

She kicks, chokes, her head breaks the waves, coughing up icy water and strands of seaweed that slick her skin until she claws them away. She thinks she sees her husband on the pier, waving. But when she wipes salt-heavy hair from her eyes, he is gone.

A tendril traces the arch of her foot, strokes her calf, beckoning.

“No.” The fisherman’s wife kicks free. “Not yet. It is too soon.”

She wakes, or she swims, long, powerful strokes carrying her back to the shore, back to her husband’s arms.

The fisherman’s boat rocks gentle as a lullaby. He would catch more with the other fishers, working together instead of alone. There is a woman who sings her catch into the boat without ever casting a line. There is a man who knots the full moon into his nets and lowers it to lure a large, flat fish like a flounder, but bigger than anyone has ever seen. It is the same fish every time, the man says, and the whole village gathers to make a fire on the beach, bright enough to light the darkened sky. They roast the fish on long wooden poles, then burn their fingers pulling flesh from bone as fast as they can. As the fish cools, the bones poison the flesh. If they don’t eat the fish fast enough it will kill them.

The fisherman has no patience for the company of others today. Last night, he thinks he woke in bed alone. He also thinks he woke with his heart thumping like the tide, his wife lying beside him, insubstantial limbs the hollow color of moonlight; his fingers would pass through if he tried to touch her. Both things are true. When he looked through the window, he saw his wife’s head break the waves, hair like ink against her sea-chilled flesh, swimming toward the shore. When he turned, she breathed beside him, troubled in her dreams.

He has been restless ever since. Afraid. So, in his smallest boat, painted white like a pearl, he drifts alone. A jar balanced in the boat’s prow brews salt-water tea with the heat of the sun. It tastes of squid ink and tears, but he has heard it is used for prophecy, and so he drains the last drop. It sears a word on his tongue.


The word slams into him, sudden certainty. He must follow his wife down; he must find her under the waves. They must find each other. As the sun passes the apex of the sky, the fisherman strips and describes a perfect arc into the blue.

The water slices him open, steals his breath. Cutting knife-clean through the dark, he swims down and down. As a boy, he dove with his brothers for silver coins falling from rich men’s fingers. He could always go the longest without coming up for air. The fisherman’s chest is narrow, but his lungs are strong.

A tendril brushes his leg, an octopus’ arm or only a weed. An electric thrill, which is also panic. He kicks away, streaming bubbles like pearls. The shadow slips past him, ahead of him, ink darting in a jet of bubbles all its own. It pauses, turns as if knowing the fisherman watches. Its limbs bloom like ribbons of hair. The fisherman stops, suspended, rocked by the current. In the center of that tangle of limbs he catches a glimpse of his wife’s face, moon pale. Then the creature is gone.

Panic of a different kind — pulse beating a new rhythm of hope and desire, the fisherman gives chase. He dives deeper, fighting the aching cold in his legs, the pressure of breath in his lungs. He follows a smoke swirl here, an unfurling of ink there.

His chilled fingers grope. Fish nibble his calloused skin. He is almost there, even though he doesn’t know what he’s reaching for. A moment longer and he will allow himself to breathe.

There. The tip of one finger brushes a smooth curve, a perfect round. But sharp, the razor edge of a shell meets his skin, draws blood. He kicks, instinct shooting him to the surface. No! he thinks. I was almost there. It’s too soon.

His head breaks waves and he draws ragged, stinging air into wounded lungs. He shakes water-wet hair from his eyes. His little boat bobs beside him, patient and waiting. Stars prick the sky like a million eyes. Impossibly, the sun has set and the moon risen while the fisherman sought beneath the waves.

The hut is dark, but neither the fisherman’s wife nor the fisherman sleep. The walls smell of smoke and fish and salt. They hold a space of emptiness between them, an absence sharp-edged. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, they both decide. The wife reaches out, fingers seeking like a starfish across the vast gulf of the bed. Her husband’s hand is waiting.

“Wife,” he says. “I have dreamed.”

“Husband,” she answers, “I, too, have dreamed.”

Lips almost touching so the fearful words will not escape them, the fisherman and the fisherman’s wife whisper of what they have seen.

“Limbs like ink.”


“A song.”

“A pearl.”

“It is a prophecy, not a dream,” the fisherman’s wife says.

“What do we do?” the fisherman asks.

Fear curls and uncurls; a tide within and without.

“I don’t know,” the fisherman’s wife says. “Not yet. But I will soon.”

Sun draws sweat from the back of her neck as the fisherman’s wife bends to her work. Her legs cramp. Her hands are slick with blood, her little knife quick as she guts fish to hang on racks above the fire. The air around her stinks of offal. Below, the tide rushes in; she peers through the slats and she sees it, dizzying, fraught with secret glints of light.


Ropes of intestines fall through her hands, glittering green and black, slithering back into the sea. The scales and blood that catch on the wood and wink in the sun make a pattern, spelling the future. She half-closes her eyes, scrying, dreaming.

Her hands continue their steady rhythm of work. At the same time, she stands on the edge of what used to be a shore. The world is hollowed, the oceans and seas gone, all the secret places dried out and laid bare. The bones of vast creatures litter new-formed canyons. Wind stirs her hair, laden with the memory of salt. The sun, red-gold and low, peeks between withered pillars of stone, drags her shadow away from her heels, and tatters it across the sand.

There are cities in the skeletons of the drowned-in-air creatures — arching Temples of Whale, intricate Labyrinths of Squid, strong Fortresses of Turtle, and perfect, recursive Gardens of Nautilus and Conch. This is the world that might be.

There are buildings she recognizes, too — the Temple, the Market Square, her neighbors’ homes — all empty. This is the world that was.

Two futures fork away from her. It is for her and her husband to choose. Embracing one world forsakes another. The land or the sea. If one rises, the other must fall.

What is there for them here? The hope of a child that never comes? Poppy smoke and a village growing emptier every day. One day, the woman will not sing her catch from the sea; one day, the man will not net the moon so they can burn their fingers on flesh hot from the fire. Then it will be only her — the fisherman’s wife — and her husband. The world is moving on without them, drying up, blowing away like dust on the wind. But there is color and life below the sea, and if they will it, it will rise to meet them.

The fisherman’s wife glances down. A bundle lies cradled in her arms — delicate, moonlight-translucent bones, wrapped in a fine-woven net of silk; a fleshless, milk-tooth mouth held to her breast. With a shout, she opens arms. The bones tumble toward the sea floor and she shouts again, reaching too late to catch them.

She opens eyes never fully closed. Not yet, but soon, it will be time to choose.

The fisherman rises from the bed he shares with his wife. Is he dreaming? He dares not look back to see. Naked, he climbs the ladder at the end of the pier, down to his little boat, tied and bobbing on the waves. He rows, muscles bunching, following the path of moonlight laid across the sea.

The sky’s pearl is full tonight, swollen. Its twin lies beneath the waves.


The fisherman jumps, a needle threading the waves. He is blind, no sun tracing his descent. He gropes, hands outstretched, chasing the elusive thing that slipped from his grasp last time.

Shapes move around him, shadow-soft in the dark. A questing tentacle wraps around his leg, brushes belly, chest, and thigh. He shivers on the edge of ecstasy.

No, he thinks. Not yet. His wife must be with him. And he pulls away.

Stars burst behind the fisherman’s eyes. How long has he been underwater? Surely by now he must have drowned.

There, again, a tentacle brushes his leg, not a question this time, but a directive: Follow. Dive.

Touch, soft, strokes his cheeks, his back. The fisherman nearly weeps, already surrounded by the salt sea. It is still too soon. He pictures his wife crouched on the pier, her back aching, her hands bloody. He can’t leave without her.

The tentacles tap, lighter this time, relenting but still directing — here, here. The fisherman’s breath is running out. His hands sweep, frantic, and there, there, his fingers close.

They snatch. They pry. The sharp-edged shell draws blood again, but this time he doesn’t let go. Not until he has his prize.

Stars trail from his lips and blaze behind his eyes as he shoots upward. He breaks the surface as the sun climbs over the horizon, weeping, a pearl clutched in his hand.

“We could leave,” the fisherman’s wife says, but she doesn’t mean it. “Leave rather than choose.”

“The sea is our life,” the fisherman says.

He is here, but he is swimming through the dark at the edge of a vast continental shelf. She is here, but she is standing on a shore, willing the water to return and restore flesh to a city of squid carcass and whale bone. If he goes further, everything will drop from beneath him. He’ll be weightless, surrounded by water made of night, lit by drowned stars. If she opens her arms, she will no longer feel the dust-dry breeze and cradle wind-stripped bones. The world will call her mother, and she won’t be afraid.

They are choosing. They have already chosen.

“There is life in the sea,” the fisherman’s wife says.

“Yes,” the fisherman says. “But how…”

The fisherman’s wife closes her eyes. The memory of a tendril of smoke grown solid, a tentacle of ink and flesh chases across her skin. She opens her mouth, parts lips, breathes out a sound that is not quite a sigh.

“There is a song,” she murmurs, and lays moon-cool fingers against the fisherman’s skin. Thrum, from the point of contact — a note, shivering through both of them. The fisherman’s teeth clench tight a moment, the reverberation in his jaw, then he lets go.

“A song.”

The walls of the hut drop away, leaving them exposed to the wind and crashing waves.

Gentle, with net-abraded hands, the fisherman unties his wife’s robes. Beside the bed stands a bucket of fresh water drawn from the rain barrel outside. He dips a cloth and passes it over her skin, washing the sweat of the day’s work away.

Water beads, droplets catching the light. The fisherman’s wife trembles with the strength of her desire. As her husband moves the cloth, she snatches a moment here to unlace his shirt, there to undo his trousers. His clothes are salt-stiff and smell of fish; they resist when she pushes them to the floor.

The fisherman removes the pins from his wife’s hair. It spills around her, dark as limbs unfurling beneath the waves. She takes the washcloth and touches him as gently as he touched her. His chest and shoulders are beaten bronze from the sun, but from the waist-down he is fish-belly pale. She is the same. Only the nape of her neck is tan where the sun beats all day, and the tops of her feet where they peek from beneath her robes.

She drops the cloth into the bucket and watches it sink. It is a living thing, spreading limbs, darting away, then only cloth again.

The fisherman holds up the pearl, cupped in his palms — an unspoken question. By way of unspoken answer, the fisherman’s wife plucks the pearl from his hands and places it against his mouth. He accepts it with a curl of his tongue, and holds it cradled there. His skin glows.

The fisherman’s wife traces the light in her husband’s veins. It pulses in his belly, his groin, and the hollow of his throat. She chases the light with her fingertips—an underwater sea creature, a pilot fish leading her to delight and doom.

The fisherman groans, a soft sound. She follows her fingers with her lips. Her tongue. The fisherman tastes of brine — rainwater-washed — of sunlight and wind. Her fingers catch in the fisherman’s salt-stiff hair, the one place she did not wash. She pulls him close, urgent but not rough. Full of need.

Her lips press to his, drinking, crushing. His tongue passes the pearl into her mouth; its taste is nothing she can describe.

The fisherman’s hands are on her back, her buttocks, holding her close.

They drift in untold seas.

Their cheeks are wet with not-unhappy tears. She wants to swallow the pearl, but she’s afraid. She traps it between soft palate and tongue, pressing it against the roof of her mouth until it hurts. She is drowning on dry land.

The fisherman and the fisherman’s wife tumble into their narrow bed. The wind gusts over them, snapping the linens like sails. Crashing waves shake the pier and the entire house trembles, a ship spun upon the sea.

The pearl passes back and forth between them. It is in her mouth. It rests in his navel. She catches it between her fingers. He steals it with his tongue. Through shared motion, they press it between her legs.

Close, she thinks, so close. But not there. Not yet.

“Dive.” She sears the word against his lips with a kiss, and hears it echoed back to her from him.

She closes her eyes, opens her throat, and tries to replicate a song from her dreams.

They are here and they are now, but they are elsewhere and elsewhen, too. Smoke pours from the fisherman’s wife’s mouth and becomes a creature with many limbs. It unfurls down her body. She rises to meet it, mouth open, legs open.

It winds around her, singing of oceans rising to devour the world — birth of a different kind. Together they can call it, the water, the dark-limbed creature, to reclaim dry canyons, nautilus cities, temples of whale bone. A tendril, a tentacle, wraps round her tongue. Its motion teaches her a song.


She is already singing it. Has always been singing it. She will sing it until the end of time.

There is life in the ocean’s pulse and swell. Her hands cradle her belly. She lets the music pull her down.

The fisherman clings to his wife. Beyond the horizon of her shoulder, it is midnight, or the sun is just now rising. The sun is sinking; it shines high overhead. Beneath them, wooden floorboards thrum with the surge of waves. Stars wheel overhead. He remembers the touch of ink-dark limbs guiding him through water only a shade lighter than themselves.

He chases them down.

“We have to go farther,” the fisherman’s wife says.

“Are you afraid?” the fisherman asks.

“Yes.” She takes his hand. Their fingers fit together as they always have—two parts of a whole. But they are not complete yet.

“So am I,” the fisherman says. “But not too afraid.”

The fisherman and the fisherman’s wife rise and walk together out onto the pier.

The waters will rise if they call them, but it is better than a slow-emptying village — the Market, the Temple, their neighbors’ houses abandoned one by one. There is so much color beneath the waves, so much life, and it will call them mother and father if they choose. It is not the child they once wanted; it is greater — the destruction of a dying village and the birthing of a whole new world.

Together, they sing.

Salt water washes around them, but they do not drown. Called by the notes thrumming from their bodies, the creature rises to meet them. Ink dark, everything they have ever dreamed. It is as small as their hopes and big as the world—a tangle of limbs the color of midnight, blue-black and glimmering with light. It lays the fisherman and the fisherman’s wife down on the wooden pier. Below them, the pulse of the waves matches the tide of their blood and their desire.

The fisherman’s wife turns toward her husband, their fingers still entwined.

“Are you afraid?” she asks.

“Not anymore.”

Legs part, hips rise. The creature knots between them, stroking hip, breast, thigh. It binds them. Swell of belly, swell of tide. Smoke made solid slips inside the fisherman’s wife. Her husband joins it. She sings.

Touch traces the fisherman’s spine, his legs. His body opens, responds. Ink fills him and he shudders in answer.

The fisherman kisses his wife’s lips, and kisses her lips. He savors her pearl, and savors their pearl.

The many-limbed creature flows between them. It twines and re-twines, a creation myth in reverse, stirring sea from the land.

On the pier, with the waves crashing beneath them, their bodies move to the rhythm of salt and blood. Their children swim around them, waiting to be born. Children with human faces and skin and teeth like sharks. Their smiles glow like moonlight among a tangle of hair like a multitude of limbs.

Yes, the fisherman thinks, rising to meet them.

Yes, the fisherman’s wife thinks, her body thrumming with song.

Together, they choose — a strange apocalypse of rising tide over the barren canyons of desolate buildings. They re-enflesh the drowned world of squid rot and whale bone, bringing back a new world, an old world, with a surge of the tide.

Together, the fisherman, the fisherman’s wife, and the creature of ink and smoke, sing.


A.C. Wise hails from the land of poutine (Montreal) and currently resides in the land of cheesesteaks (Philadelphia). Her fiction has appeared in previous issues of Shimmer, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, among other publications. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. You can find her online at and on twitter as @ac_wise

A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise


Interview with A.C. Wise | Shimmer #21 | Subscribe to Shimmer

Shimmer #21: The Drinking Game

In my editorial for issue #21, I played around with the notion of drinks for the stories, being that Shimmer was twenty-one and legal to drink. And then I thought “hey, drinks for stories.” Thus, we present to you drinks for each of the stories in Shimmer #21!

We begin with drinks for “Anna Saves Them All” and “Dharmas,” concocted by Molly Tanzer and Jessica Leonard.


Venom (for “Anna Saves Them All”)
by Molly Tanzer

Venom, by Molly Tanzer
Venom, by Molly Tanzer
Complex and seductive, bitter and floral, cloudy as a moral quandary, medicinal and yet pleasantly sweet, Venom is the pale mint green of louched Absinthe… but with so much more depth of flavor lurking beneath the surface.

Arak is a Levantine spirit, clear and anise flavored, similar to ouzo. It turns cloudy when mixed with water, so make sure to use lots of ice to produce the cloudy, milky quality that results from this mixture.

1 3/4 oz arak (or rakı, or ouzo–just NOT arrak, which is entirely different!)
3/4 oz Chartreuse
1/4 of a juicy lime
Dash orange bitters
Dash orange flower water

Shake everything together with lots of ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, add a long, serpentine twist of lime. Drink quickly, while cold.


The Bloody Hell (for “Dharmas”)
by Jessica Leonard

For this story, I feel like only a drink with some real heat will do.  For this, I give you The Bloody Hell.  There are different versions of the drink, most involve a variation on the Bloody Mary, but my favorite recipe is a little different.  This Bloody Hell gets its color from blood oranges.  When not in season they can be hard to find, but you can always juice and freeze them for the off-season.  The drink features bourbon and jalapeños for extra kick and spice. And if you garnish the glass with a jalapeño slice, hmm, doesn’t that remind of a snail shell?  For the beer I say add your favorite, but I’d stay away from certain seasonal flavors as they will overpower your cocktail.  A good bourbon barrel beer will work nicely.

2 oz blood orange juice
1 ½ oz bourbon
1 tbs agave
1 jalapeno, sliced
2 oz beer

In a shaker filled with ice add the blood orange juice, bourbon, agave, and jalapeno sliced. Shake well, pour through a strainer into a highball glass with ice.

Add beer, stir.

Join us next week for two more Shimmery cocktails, and if you haven’t already, grab your own copy of Shimmer #21!
Our Bartenders:

Molly Tanzer is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist, 2012), Rumbullion, and Other Liminal Libations (Egaeus, 2013), the forthcoming Vermilion (Word Horde, 2015), and a second novel that will be out in 2015 — but she can’t say anything further about that yet, on pain of death. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, among many other places, The Book of Cthulhu (I and II), Strange Aeons, and The Book of the Dead. She lives in Boulder, CO with her husband and a very bad cat. When not writing, she enjoys mixing cocktails, experimenting with Korean cooking, and (as of recently) training for triathlons. She tweets @molly_the_tanz, and blogs — infrequently — at

Jessica Leonard is the author of stories about people and the things they do.  She also co-hosts the Books and Booze podcast, a weekly show featuring author interviews, good drinks, and great books. You can find Jessica’s writing at The Menacing Hedge, and Counterexample Poetics , as well as on Amazon. Books and Booze just wrapped up their 110th episode!  You can find all the past episodes at  You can also join the discussion on Facebook!  Join the group for updates on new episodes, guests, giveaways, promotions, and you opportunity to submit questions for your favorite authors.

E. Catherine Tobler likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, she’s not much into health food, but is into champagne.

Shimmer #21: A.C. Wise

Tell us how “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” came to be.acwise
As many of my stories do, this one came from a snippet of overheard conversation. I have no idea what the context was, but two people were talking about Hokusai’s famous (or infamous) woodcut, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. One of them said something to the effect of, “I hope the fisherman doesn’t catch them, heh heh heh,” and I immediately thought, “wait, would that be a bad thing?” What if the fisherman was an equal partner in the relationship? Thus the tale of a balanced and loving triad between a fisherman, his wife, and an octopus of variable size was born.

This is your third! short story in Shimmer, and in each one, the sea factors into the story somehow. What is it about the sea?
Actually, it’s my fourth – Trashman, Tasting of the Sea, How Bunny Came to Be, and this one. But now that you mention it, Trashman did have a river. Oceans, shores, rivers, creeks, lakes, pools, and other bodies of water do tend to be a recurring theme in my work. My obsession with seas and oceans probably traces back to summer visits to Cape Cod as a kid. When I think of the ocean, it’s almost always a New England-y ocean. It’s a perfect setting for the kind of fiction I like to write – a little bit cold, a little bit brooding. The air tastes like salt and the wind tangles your hair and there’s a very real possibility of something dark and terrible and wonderful hiding under those shifting grey-green waves. It’s not like a tropical beach with clear, aqua water and white sand, easily tamed by a postcard. My New England beaches are wild and moody, and that mood is frequently cranky and/or surly. Plus tropical beaches contain way too much sunshine.

Your story from Issue 17, “How Bunny Came to Be,” is a prequel to “Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron.” Do you plan to write any other stories about the Glitter Squadron?
Funny you should ask! I just finished putting together a collection of Glitter Squadron stories, and I have turned it over to a beta reader for critique. I have no idea whether anything will come of it, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

You’ve been writing regular “Women to Read” guest posts for SF Signal. Has this has had an impact on your fiction writing?
I don’t know that it’s had an impact on my writing, but it’s certainly made me more conscious of my reading habits. I started actively keeping a log of the novels and anthologies I read each year in 2012. Last year, I made a conscious effort to track the non-anthology short fiction that most impressed me as well. I have no problem finding short fiction by women to recommend in my posts, but I did realize I was falling down on reading novels by women. It’s not that I wasn’t reading them at all, but they were closer to a third of my overall reading, rather than half or more, which is where I am so far this year. I’ve also discovered a lot of wonderful new-to-me authors in writing the guest post series, and I’m delighted to be able to share their work with other readers.

In previous interviews, we’ve asked you about Lovecraft, Bradbury, music, and dinosaurs. So, tell us; what it is about poutine that makes it Montreal’s dish?
Well, on a basic level, no one outside the province of Quebec makes poutine quite right. I’ve seen some valiant efforts, and sampled some delicious variations, but they’re not really poutine as far as I’m concerned. The best poutine comes from faintly dingy looking places where the fry oil probably hasn’t been changed in about a billion years. On a metaphorical level, I suppose you could say that much like Montreal, poutine takes seemingly disparate things that sound to any sane person like they shouldn’t work together and turns them into a wonderful and harmonious whole – a golden, crispy-yet-soggy, gravy-drenched, melty, gooey whole. Wait… What was I talking about? Damn it, now I want poutine!


Dream of the Fisherman’s WifeShimmer #21 | Subscribe

Issue #21, Editorial

Sandro Castelli

Shimmer is old enough to drink.

What do you suppose a Shimmer cocktail would look like?

Two parts darkness to one part starlight and one part desolation, served with the shard of a blade that pierced the hide of a manticore while crossing the wastes of Io during spring thaw?

One jigger of bittersweet, three jiggers of sour, with a sprig of Plutonian thyme served over glacier chips from an expedition to Europa’s poles in 1871?

Three drops of paper crushed with one drop of a ghost’s breath in a sieve of bones, served upside down with a candied lemon rind (from the orchards of Orthosie) on the edge of a dream just beginning?

Our cover story is served by Seth Dickinson, over dry ice; it carries a hint of the desert heat in its depths, the grit of sand, the tang of blood. A cold and alien presence slides down your spine with every sip; you cannot yet define it, but it knows you. All tastes explode across your tongue with desperate regret, eternal need.

Vajra Chandrasekera makes his Shimmer  debut with a concoction to move your tongue in still new and unfamiliar ways, around the rim of a glass that looks like a descent into Hell. This landscape will surprise you with a burst of fire, a hint of snail–snail, surely not, but yes, oh yes, see the way all spirals inward before moving out again? Infinity.

A. C. Wise returns to Shimmer’s pages with a brew of the sea and all the beasts therein; the earlier snail has hastened your appreciation for the sunlit salt water that now kisses your lips. A coil of seaweed slides by, enfolding a gleaming pearl inside its slick darkness a moment before the tide pulls all to its breast.

Our selections for this round close with Erica Satifka, a blend that is one part frosted Forest, one part turmoil, and two parts body-flesh. These words slide into you, become you, become us, and carry you deep into Forest boughs, where you-in-us suck snow from stardust-spiced needles.

We have some wonderful things coming in the next few weeks and hope you will join us.

E. Catherine Tobler
Senior Editor


Buy Shimmer #21! | Subscribe to Shimmer
E. Catherine Tobler’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her first novel, Rings of Anubis, is now available. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, ecatherinetobler


Issue 21

Artist: Sandro Castelli

Shimmer blends the perfect speculative cocktail for its twenty-first issue. Three parts exuberance to one part seawater, a sand-crusted spun-sugar glass brushed with winter’s fresh boughs.

These four stories, from Shimmer alums and novices alike, will take you on a journey that is familiar as earth, but as strange as stars. We explore the depths of the sea and the dry deserts both, where encounters don’t have to be alien to terrify.


Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson
The other team members have their own terrors, of course — rational big-idea fears: where Blackbird came from, why it’s here, what kind of Christopher Columbus apocalypse it could trigger if it goes home, or if it doesn’t. But Anna thinks about how she came so close to home, how she’ll never know if the thing she did was worth anything at all. That fills her with something jagged: anguish…or relief.

Dharmas, by Vajra Chandrasekera
Like every passenger he has ever driven, I have placed myself at serious risk of injury or death. He owes me a life, whether he takes mine or not. This is why I am compelled to undo his narrative.

Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, by A. C. Wise
The fisherman’s wife rises. Is she sleeping still? If she glances back to the pool of moonlight holding her husband in their tangled sheets will she see herself lying beside him, chest moving steady with the in-out tide of breath? She steps outside, barefoot; from the pier to the sand, to the edge of the shore where the water traces a silver line against her toes.

We Take the Long View, by Erica Satifka
The Very-Big-Wrong, the it-thing from the landing site, has invaded the settlement, the place where the we-that-are-mobile gather to speak, to screw, and to eat of Leaves and body-food. We begged and pleaded at it and asked the Forest-That-Thinks to give us permission to use force to repel the intruder.

Editorial, by E. Catherine Tobler
Shimmer is old enough to drink…we’re concocting some delightful drinks over the course of Issue #21’s release!


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Dharmas, by Vajra Chandrasekera

T he tuktuk driver spits a small fiery globule out of the side of his mouth. It spins as it flies, striated by angular momentum, and burns a hole in the street, burrowing instantly into the asphalt. I crane my neck outside the vehicle as the tiny, bubbling crater recedes into the distance, watching the curl of smoke until I have to duck back inside to avoid decapitation. Traffic is so loud we can only speak by shouting, but I still think I can hear the fireball hissing. And then gone, lost beneath and behind in the past, heading for the Mohorovičić discontinuity while the street moves on.

The tuktuk driver’s name is Piter, according to the worn label on the back of his seat. Piter is telling me a story about digging a hole to hell, which is also the story of his life, and I am trying to explain to him why his life is meaningless, while he does the same to me. We are locked in ideological struggle, because ideology is ontology and we cannot live in each other’s worlds. I can’t remember how long we’ve been arguing.

“In 1989, I was a student in Russia, interning at the Kola Superdeep Borehole project,” Piter says. All his stories start like this in the deeps of his past, beneath the crust of the mundane. “I was there when they dug the deepest, the day they decided to stop. Do you know why they stopped, brother?”

When I speak to him I address myself to the back of his head, a great dome imperfectly covered in oily curls; his scalp is unnaturally pale in contrast with his umber skin. He, meanwhile, does not catch my eye in the rearview mirrors but speaks to my disembodied voice as if I were a bourgeois ghost and not quite human, bruised and embodied on the rattling back seat of his deathtrap. Like every passenger he has ever driven, I have placed myself at serious risk of injury or death. He owes me a life, whether he takes mine or not. This is why I am compelled to undo his narrative.

“Snopes dot com,” I say, in triumph. “They say they dug a well to hell and heard the howling of the damned. It was a hoax.” I wave my phone at him where I have the page open.


He glances backwards, so quick I see no pupils, only a slice of his mad yellow sclera. “Who are you going to believe, the internet or an eyewitness? Anyway, that’s not the story.” Piter is always interrupting his own stories, shifting his weight like a boxer when I punch a hole in his defense. “I heard the other day that Putin is starting the project up again. They will open up the hole and send soldiers through. The Russians intend to capture a piece of hell.”

“Which hell?” I ask. I have long since lost count of such things. We learned the superstitions of our ancestors in school, handled safely with thick gloves and goggles, sanitized by Mahavamsa and Marx alike. “There are at least nine hells.”

“Twenty-one,” he says, disapproving. “Or twenty-eight. Pick your purana.”

“Which so?” I concede the point quickly. Never argue the Vedas with a Marxist. “Which one did you find?”

“The one under Russia, obviously,” Piter says, “I am not interested in sophistry.” This is the kind of thing Piter says when he engages in the rankest sophistry. “Soon people will be able to, literally, go to hell. Hell will become a territory that can be contested. Colonized.”

The tuktuk swerves alarmingly, bumping against a passing car and scraping its side. The noise is like something dying, and I smell paint and gasoline. Piter swears, and the car’s driver gives him the finger. We don’t stop. Nobody ever stops. Piter even speeds up a little.

A tuktuk is open on both sides, not aerodynamic. The wind tunnels directly into me in the backseat, the focus of all the drag, as if our headlong rush is actually an attempt to erode me away. The wind is hot and dry, a sirocco formed in concrete canyons blistering in the sun. My face feels dusty and abraded, the skin dry and hot. I am forgetting the story of my life.

Along with Piter’s name, the label on the back of his seat has a hotline number for complaints. AM I DRIVING SAFELY? it asks, disingenuously. I tell him I’m contemplating calling, and also that hell is not real. But this is a weak rejoinder.

“You don’t have a scientific mind,” Piter scoffs, deservingly contemptuous. “All territories are stories told by Empire. Otherwise a place is just stones and trees.”

“Our ancestors once worshipped stones and trees,” I say, automatically as if it were catechism. In a way it is, the catechism of curated history. This is what we are taught as children: in ancient days, our ancestors worshipped stones and trees, serpents and demons, before Buddha came. Then for a while they worshipped Buddha. Then Empire came, and for a while they worshipped Empire as well. Then came Nation, the horse-headed twins Marx and Market, and so many others, so many warring, swiving gods that heaven is crowded and our sins flow, uncountable like water. This is why our hells are so many they must be numbered: to follow any law we break many others. We exist only in violation, always on the cusp of being unmade. A new regime, a new revolution, a new philosophy, a new definition of what it means to exist: we might become hyperreal, like Piter, or almost unreal, like me. Argument is life, definition is survival.

He does not, Piter hastens to add, support Putin’s imperial ambitions. He merely sees them as an inevitable part of history’s machinations. “Empire is the means,” Piter says, “By which ontologically suspect entities, like Lanka or Russia or Hell, are transformed into territory. All the worlds are void and without form, until Empire moves over them.”

I am about to speak when Piter sticks his own head out of the tuktuk, looking back the way we came. His hands are steady, and the vehicle does not waver at first—but my heart does, and my counterargument is lost on my tongue. It tastes like salt. All I can wonder is whether his name is an error, a typo for “Peter,” and whether it looks the same on his birth certificate. That’s the hand of Empire, right there, the idea that his very name could be an error made real, so perhaps it makes sense that he thinks so much of it. How well both forms of the name suit him, though, their chthonic solidity, the suggestion of magma beneath his crust!

The vehicle begins to tilt alarmingly while Piter holds his pose, still looking backward while we speed up. I’m breathing fast but shallow. I don’t want to seem like I’m panicking, because that’s a cheap way to lose an argument. I try to think slow thoughts not of collision at high speed, not of dying in mangled metal.


“What are you looking at?” I snap, finally. “How do you claim to know what Putin intends to do? Gods as witness, will you watch the ro—” And the rest of my words are lost in the roar of a truck overtaking us. I startle, jerking away and clutching at the sides of the vehicle. The smog of its exhaust in my face makes me cough.

“A snail crossing the street,” Piter says, facing forward calmly as if he had only been waiting for me to ask. He corrects the subtle drift of the vehicle out of our lane, away from certain death back into mere probability. “But too late, a car already has crushed it.”

“Why, you wanted to help it across?” I’m almost laughing in relief, but only almost. I must put as much scorn in my voice as possible. Piter has his entire vehicle and our deadly, unending motion to use as part of his argument. I have only voice and words. I have to remind myself that I can still feel my extremities, that I am flesh and blood. Without argument I am fading. In Piter’s world, I am not sure I exist. He wants to make me a ghost, one way or the other. Not a kin-demon or a hungry ghost or a dispossessed lumpenproletarian, but that bourgeois ghost with clanking imperial chains.

“It was an opportunity to do good,” Piter says. He sounds bitter at having missed it. I am piecing together his hierarchy of gods. Buddha over Marx, Empire as the mother of Nation, above them all the need to assert definition on the world. Call it Law, or Dharma: this last is the only way in which we are the same.

“Snails are stupid,” I say. At this he lapses into sullen silence, and I rejoice. But the argument is not yet settled in favour of his dharma or mine: the world is still in flux. Somewhere a little fireball, digging a hole deep into the earth; on the sea of magma under crust, continents in slow imperial drift. The ghosts of the chains growing heavier on my wrists, while my bones grow light and feverish.

“There are at least twenty-two hells,” I tell him. I’m dug in too deep now, too close to the magma. “Or twenty-nine, pick your purana. I mean, there is one more than they say.”

Piter twists his head completely around to look at me, swiveling like an owl. I fight the urge to scream at him again for not watching the road while driving. Instead I try to brace my feet more firmly against the floor, though I cannot get purchase. He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, during which time my heart stutters and speeds. I can’t meet his ember eyes because I can see the cars and buses and trucks in front of us swerving away to avoid an accident, the bleating horns growing frantic. I flinch at every scream of tearing metal. Piter is focused on me, and we’re moving faster than ever. My vision is narrowing to a tunnel focused on the inside of Piter’s mouth when he speaks, which is a hot, glowing red.

“What makes you think this world is a hell?” Piter says, finally. He does not seem angry, only interested.

“Because the snail,” I say. We’ve drifted into the wrong lane and I’ve given up on even the pretense of calm, both arms extended to grasp the frame of the tuktuk. “We are meat for the grinder in this world.” But Piter does not seem convinced. Theodicy means nothing to him because Buddha taught him that he deserved it.

“Because we’re not special,” I say. Behind Piter, a car turns too sharply to avoid us and crashes into a motorcyclist, who flips and arcs across my field of vision. I can’t see him land, but even over the din I think I hear the crunch.”In all the worlds, why should we be special?” I say. “There are more hells than heavens. The definition of a hell is pain. Are we not in pain? If they in heaven cracked the sky and listened to us screaming, wouldn’t they call us the howling damned?”

And Piter finally laughs, turning to face forward again. My grip on the vehicle tightens, and I feel solidity in my bones. The ghosts of chains grow fainter, though they will never fade.

“That’s true,” he says, weaving between two buses that scrape the vehicle on both sides, metal screeching so long and loud that I hold my breath until it’s over. When we come out alive on the other side, I lean out the side and spit a fireball so spherical, so perfect, that it could have been a sun.


Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and on Twitter as @_vajra. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Static, Lackington’s and Lightspeed, among others. You can find more work by him at

Vajra Chandrasekera
Vajra Chandrasekera
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Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Anna Saves Them All by Seth DickinsonBlackbird’s pilot waits, vitrified.

Nine days since the ship closed around them and with the poison killing them hour by desperate hour, Anna decides she wants to see the alien once. Erik Wygaunt warns her, like Li Aixue before him: “Go in with an empty stomach.”

“I don’t mind snakes,” she says. Li’s scientists showed her the photos.

“No.” Erik has eyes like a winter fisherman’s borehole. “There’s something wrong with it. Like a—stain. You’ll understand.”

Everyone who’s seen it walks away afraid.

One of the soldiers guarding the hatch peeks inside as he opens it, and he shudders like he’s just been catheterized with a live wire. “Fuck,” he says, and spits on the deck, trying to expiate something, to purge his eyes.

Here goes, then:

Anna steps into the sleep chamber sidelong, eyes peeled, skin prickling, hands half-curled, ready to bolt. It’s a rush, an undeniable addiction. She loves to be about-to-fight.

The alien, frozen in glass.

No legs. Most of its body a long lash of tail, muscular, serpentine, a naga shape jacketed in scales firm and dark as stone arrowheads. Humanoid torso, slim, kinda ripped, arms shading down from sable to silver-white like long elegant gloves. Four fingers. Two opposed thumbs.

(It’s so—)

Where it should have a neck, a head, it flowers into snakes. Eight coiled snakes, bundled up, knotted tight. Sleeping. Anna imagines them at full extension, a committee of swan-necked vipers, a serpent coronet.

(So beautiful—)

“You okay?” one of the guards calls. “Just back out when it gets too bad.” And then, soothingly, when Anna doesn’t reply: “You’re okay. You’re okay. Just come to my voice, man.”

A frisson jolts Anna, not fear but awe, like she just hit the peak of a great song, like the big tracking shot at the climax of the movie when the score booms and everything feels ready for ruin or rebirth. She steps through the clutter of cameras and equipment to press a hand against the glass.

“Holy shit,” she hears one of the soldiers say. “Is she—dude, check the cameras, check her out.”

“Doesn’t she—fuck me, she doesn’t feel it—”

The alien crystal is cold, lucid, faintly yielding. Hi, Anna thinks, even though it’s ridiculous. Hi. Everyone’s afraid of you.

And the pilot’s voice comes back, husky, mature, precise, faintly sibilant, unambiguously female, speaking Kurdish like a born tongue: You and I. We have been marked.

The glass splits beneath her fingertips. Curls open in jagged fractal steps.

“Hey!” Anna shouts, backpedalling. “HEY!” She hits something, a camera or an instrument, and falls on her ass yelling as the alien rises above her, stretching on coiled loops of tail, serpents flowering, tiny white mouths tasting the air.

From the hatch: “Motherfucker—!”

The alien darts one neck in silent command and the hatch slams shut.

She never thought she’d come back to Kurdistan, land of meltwater and mountains and Sarin and loss.

Then the Blackbird object fell out of the sky, and Captain Erik Wygaunt, in charge of the American quick-response team (they thought it was a Chinese suborbital spaceplane) tapped her as their guide and translator. One fuckup led to another, and now here they are, locked into the red-lit machine viscera of a fallen starship, claustrophobic, poisoned, dying.

The other team members have their own terrors, of course—rational big-idea fears: where Blackbird came from, why it’s here, what kind of Christopher Columbus apocalypse it could trigger if it goes home, or if it doesn’t.

But Anna thinks about how she came so close to home, how she’ll never know if the thing she did was worth anything at all. That fills her with something jagged: anguish…or relief.

The thing she did:

Anna spoke to an alien once, a man who might have been born Homo sapiens but who wasn’t anything human. A beast in a red beret, servant of Ali Hassan al-Majid, who devised Al-Anfal at his cousin Saddam’s request.

He didn’t believe that she was human, either. He asked:

Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?

“Anna. Anna, for God’s sake, talk to me.”

It towers over her, a dark starburst of scale and cord. One head fixes its eyes on her. The others circle warily or bend to preen shoulders and chest.

Not a hint of weakness in it, not a tremble of fatigue. Just the immovable dynamism of a predator flash-framed, a panther suspended mid-kill.

Anna fumbles for her radio. Her fingers answer her, just like they did last time she thought she was about to die. “Captain. Captain Wygaunt, I hear you. I’m okay.”

Good. Good. Fuck!” A bark of static. Erik gets angry at his own fear. “We’re here, Anna—we see it on the cameras.” Military discipline clips the emotion from his words. “Can you ascertain its intent?”

Another voice: Li Aixue, the mathematician. “She’s not experiencing it. Look at her. She doesn’t feel the effect.”

Anna gets her feet beneath her and rises into a cautious crouch. She’s afraid, exhilarated, alive with a totality she hasn’t felt for years. “Hey,” she calls, meeting the alien’s closest gaze, fixing on that head like it’s the whole of the thing. “You understand me.”

Voice comes from a place between the join of its necks. Synthesized, somehow, but there’s a truer speech behind it—sibilant, overlapping, in quadrophone stereo. An eight-headed hiss. “There are sixty-one people trapped in this ship,” it says. “You have a radio. You will speak to them for me.”

“Okay. I can do that.” It can talk. It knows about people and radios. Not too alien, right? Or smart enough to fake it. “They want to know what you—”

It rides over her. “I need human brain tissue. I have filled the atmosphere of this ship with an operant toxin. Tell the people to bring me ten of their number to eat, or I will let them all die.”


She knows she ought to think about this: who comes across the stars to eat human brains? What kind of psychology meets a new species and says—do what I want, or I’ll kill the lot of you?

But Anna’s not that woman, and fuck if she’s going to listen to this again, this red-beret motherfucker playing his games, because it’s exactly the same, isn’t it? It’s the same fucking question the other alien asked her in the dust while the mules brayed and the children wept, and she hasn’t dreamed about that day for twenty-something years just to do it all again, no, no, not her. She is not that woman.

“Anna,” her radio squawks. Revulsion thick in Wygaunt’s voice, the alien’s everyone-but-Anna aura at work. “Did it answer? It’s speaking Kurdish. What did it say?”

“It wants ten of us,” she says, staring the alien down, imagining its fangs in her throat, her fists around its slender necks. “It’s going to eat their brains. If we don’t agree, it’s going to let us all die.”

And then, to the monster, arched above her in watchful regard, she says what she wanted to say last time, what she didn’t: “The hell we will.”

“All right. Acknowledged.” She can hear the unspoken resolve in Erik Wygaunt—I don’t bargain lives. Maybe he’s suspected, ever since Blackbird closed itself around them, that it would come to violence. “Professor Li will talk you through this. Hold on, Anna. We’re going to get the hatch open and get you out.”

“You are marked,” the alien says. It-–she?–-she touches her own chest, two long white fingers pressed between her scaled pectorals. “We carry the brand. I smell it on you. You have to understand.”

Anna’s courage has always been reckless, thoughtless. She stares down the viper nest, silent. It turns an extra head on her, as if puzzled; and then, after a moment, withdraws a few meters, tail curling through lazy, powerful strokes.

“You have to understand,” it repeats.

The man in the red beret chased them north, his jash guides tracking Anna’s whole village as they fled by truck and horse and mule. When it became clear they would not outrun the Iraqis and their traitor-Kurd accomplices, some of the peshmerga went back to try to hold them off.

Anna’s mother and father and older brother went with them. Later Anna would think, sometimes resentfully, sometimes in choked admiration: Serhing and Kaja loved their daughter, but they loved each other more.

The battle made a distant racket. After a while the clamor stopped. An Iraqi helicopter caught them columned in the open, its rotors a taunt.

When the trucks of soldiers surrounded them and began to dismount, Anna picked up a rock, looked for their commander, and began to walk towards the man in the red beret. “Anna!” old Aske hissed, children gathered in her skirts. “You will be shot!”

“We will all be shot,” she said, and kept walking.


Li Aixue on the radio. Anna met her before Object Entry, liked her, felt a curious envy too–-a woman of air and light and high logic, a woman whose dreams were made of better stuff than dust and blood.

“Go ahead,” Anna says. The alien stands, quiescent, in the center of the chamber, clear membranes flickering over her sixteen small eyes. Occasionally she tastes the air.

“I need to verify that you’re not experiencing any nausea. Any sense of, ah, moral distress?”


“Would you describe the organism as intrinsically evil?”

“What?” Memory of mother and firelight, of Zoroastrian myth, Yazidi fables.

Li hesitates, clearly feeling her way across untested ground. “Observers often report a sense of intuitive moral content.”

“I don’t know if I’m the woman to ask about that,” Anna says, and fights back an animal laugh. She’s never told anyone in America what she did, why the survivors put her up for adoption. Not her parents. Not Wygaunt.

“Understood. Anna, are you willing to ask the organism a few questions?”

“Sure,” Anna says, kind of taken with how smooth she sounds. Wygaunt told her she’d make a good soldier. He was wrong, but it felt nice. “You have audio?”

“We’re live on all the compartment cameras.”

Anna steps forward, waving. The alien reacts with a slow, coiling movement, a wary centering.

The first thing to roll off her tongue is coffee-shop banality. “What’s your name?”

Anna can hear Li’s breath tremble when the alien responds. “You will call me Ssrin.”

She relays this. “It has a name. It has a translator. It was prepared to meet us.” Li exhales raggedly. “Okay. Its mode of cognition seems relatable. Ask it about the nerve tissue.”

“I’m Anna.” She keeps her hands still, open, visible. The big philosophical ramifications of this moment, the historical weight, are mostly lost on her. Mom Forwell, always hunting positivity, liked to call her alive in the moment. “Why do you need our brains?”

“I came out of the glass because I thought I could speak to you. Because you have the mark.” The alien touches a bundle of her necks with one hand and strokes them, head to base, hissing long and low. “But you offer me weakness. You ask without leverage. Why should I tell you anything, Anna?”

“She thinks I’m an idiot,” Anna reports, fighting the urge to step back. “She thinks we’re all idiots.”

“Okay. I have a guess, going off game theory and intuition.” Dry paper sound of Li coughing. “It opened with a threat. Maybe it comes from somewhere where the default social behaviour is aggression. They assume malicious intent, so social interaction requires them to establish a detente.”

Looking at her, Anna can believe that. No doubt she’s a predator. “She thought we’d kill her?”

“Kill her and take her ship. Unless she had an insurance policy. Thus the poison.”

“Ssrin.” She tries the unfamiliar name, still riding the danger high, the tiger-cage thrill. “If we give you ten brains, you give us an antidote?”

The alien – does she chuckle? Is that rising choral hiss a mockery of human laughter, or the genuine article? “Yes,” Ssrin says. “You understand. Pick ten. The rest of you live.”

Anna doesn’t realize she’s doing it, doesn’t mean to do it. But she does it. She starts speaking the dream tongue, the blood language, the bargain: “Or maybe we kill you, we find the antidote ourselves, and we all live.”

The alien opens a single mouth in a slow yawn. Unhinges fangs beaded with small drops of milky venom.

“Ask it why it needs the nerve tissue,” Li repeats. Tremor of tension in her voice. Don’t antagonize it.”

“For the mission!” Ssrin snarls, as if the radio had spoken right to her. And then – whip-quick, thunderously strong – she smashes the cameras around her, tail lashing, and rips the radio from Anna’s hands.

The last thing Anna hears is Wygaunt’s voice: “We’re bringing up explosives, Anna, just hang on – “

White fingers click the radio off as if they’ve done it before. And Anna stands, ready, unafraid, coiled on the breathless edge of futile violence. She’s a broken woman. She never responds the right way.

But Ssrin doesn’t attack. “The mission,” she repeats, and then takes her bundled necks between her hands. Lets out a trembling divided breath. “God help me. God help me.”

alt=Anna threw her rock. It fell short. She knelt to find another and an Iraqi soldier grabbed her, dragged her forward to the man in the red beret who said in Arabic:

“Are you the daughter of Serhing Rekani? He spoke of you while he was dying. He said you would defy me.”

She choked on the stink of sweat and blood and gunshot but it was easier to be revolted than to let herself show fear, grief, horror. Father –

“I have always believed that unreasoning defiance is the mark of an animal.” The officer knelt, pistol loose in his right hand. “A human being reasons. A human being understands how to do what must be done. An animal kicks and spits even when offered a way out. Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?”

“You’re the only one,” the alien says.

The chamber is sealed. No sound, no air, no radio from outside. Just Anna and the monster, arched in some kind of calisthenic, balanced on one coil of tail and reaching up to touch the ceiling. A pillar of black sinew.

In the dream, in the memory, Anna always talks to the monster. “The only one who’s not afraid of you?”

“No one can miss the cultratic brand.” One of Ssrin’s heads watches her, fangs bared. A filigree of metal along the teeth. “I have seen fear in the eyes of behemoth skylord and nihilist lana. I have seen it in the other humans. They all smell the brand. Except you.”

Anna doesn’t know what to ask, what to think, not the way Li Aixue the prodigy would. She just goes with her gut, with firelight fable logic. “We’re both bad people.”

“Evil. Evil people.”

The translation is toneless but somehow Anna hears conviction in the hiss behind it. Evil. Like in mother Kaja’s stories, like in the Shahnameh: an externality, a force.

“You can smell evil. Like it’s…real.”

“There are other systems than physics encrypted in our world. Detritus of an unfinished design meant to track and describe sentient minds. All higher technology exploits loopholes in the interface between physics and this poiesis.” One of Ssrin’s necks reaches for her, past her. She feels a tiny tongue tickle the back of her neck. Doesn’t shudder. “Your soldiers are outside.”

“They’ll try to kill you.”

“You won’t let them.”

What does her laugh sound like to the alien? An idiot sound, trapped in a single throat? “You think I can stop them?”

“You are their leader.”

“Their – ” Oh. She stops herself.

But the alien sees. “You’re not.” Ssrin’s probing head recoils as if burnt. “How can that be? You’re the ruthless one. The glass told me. I smelled it –

The translation cuts off. Ssrin makes a symphonic growl, an awful predator sound that pricks every fear in the ape genome, and the chamber lights go out.

Instant, complete darkness.

“Fuck,” Ssrin says, some alien epithet rendered banal by machine. “Not this! Not now! Fuck!

Anna loses it, in a personal Anna way, totally mis-wired. She jumps forward and tries to get Ssrin around the necks. But there’s a shattered camera in the way.

She’s still falling when Ssrin catches her by the throat.

“You love your family,” the monster in the red beret said, while little Anna struggled and spat. “But the sheep you slaughter love each other too. Love is not the mark of a human being. A human being knows how to do what must be done.”

His soldiers hauled prisoners from the truck, their heads wrapped in burlap sacks, their hands bound. Peshmerga from the village rear-guard.

Mother? Father? Brother Merdo? Could they be –

The officer, shaking his head like an ulama teaching law, drew her towards the kneeling captives. “Tachid here will cover you with his rifle. In a few moments, I am going to give you my pistol. If you aim it anywhere but where I tell you, Tachid will shoot you.”

He turned to one of his men. “How many animals have we penned down there?”

“A hundred and nine, sir.”

“Good. Anna Rekani, I am going to offer you a deal. A way to prove your humanity.”

“Do they care for you?” Ssrin hisses. “Will they bargain for your life?”

The alien’s fist is a vise. Anna suspects it could crush her windpipe and spine. But she’s not afraid. She knows the grip of monsters.

Maybe everyone else could see Ssrin was evil before she did. Maybe that’s why their guts turn when they look at the monster.

Maybe she can’t see it because it looks like a mirror.

“Something just went wrong,” Anna says. “The lights. You’re in trouble.”

Ssrin is silent. Anna figures Ssrin can probably think about ten times faster than she can, so the silence must really mean something. She plows on, probing blindly, improvising. “If you had a working ship, you wouldn’t be here trying to bargain. You wouldn’t have crashed at all. They’re going to blow that hatch open and kill you, and there’s nothing you can do.”

“You’ll die with me.”

“I don’t care,” Anna says, and God, it feels good to admit. “I deserve it.”

Ssrin sets her down with delicate precision. The darkness is absolute. Anna opens her arms, probing, afraid to take a step. After a moment she gets down on all fours and starts to crawl.

“I came so far,” Ssrin says. The translation is toneless and yet utterly desolate. “Bearing so many hopes. Your people are mad, Anna, to choose sure death over a simple bargain.”

“You’re an idiot. You didn’t have to poison anyone. We would’ve helped you.”

“‘The surest language is force.’ The first rule I ever learned. The principle that gave us empire.”

“Is that why you’re stained?”


Anna finds a wall. Puts her back against it. She wants to be out of the way when Erik’s soldiers storm in. “The evil on you. The brand everyone sees. What did you do?”

“I was born with it.”

“That’s your crime?”

Ssrin’s voice comes from a lower place. Maybe she’s slumped against the wall too. “Only the first. I was a soldier, ascendant, in the service of empire. They could make diamond moons from the pressed ash of my victims. And I betrayed all that, Anna Earthborn. I turned on my people and my sister, turned on her great work, gambling everything-– hoping that in the end I could find absolution, wipe it all clean, liberate the galaxy, do one good thing—”

Anna starts at the sound: Ssrin hammering the wall, scale fists on alien alloy. “I cleaned the security system when I stole the ship! I disabled the lockdown! I was thorough!

The dead lights. It must be shipwide: Blackbird rebelling against its traitor captain.

Soft sounds from the hatch. Wygaunt’s men, making ready.

“You have the radio.” Anna doesn’t know why she’s trying to help, but no, no, that’s a lie, it’s – it’s sympathy, empathy, the boggling fact that across aeons of divergent evolution she can hear the machine rendition of a psychopathic serpent chorus and feel bad for her. “It’s not too late to surrender. Give them the antidote. They’ll be merciful.”

“Too much at stake.” Sinuous scale-on-scale sounds in the dark. Ssrin’s heads nipping at each other in anxious violence. “You’re too small to know how huge it is. The secret buried here, entombed in your minds by cosmological fluke. It is a key to the cipher of reality itself, a vulnerability in the computational substrate-–if my people find it, they will be gods. She will be God. I cannot risk surrender when the stakes are so high.”

“You’re going to kill us,” Anna realizes. Why would this fanged ultrapredator come so far without the ability to slaughter a few monkeys face-to-face? Erik’s soldiers are going to blow the hatch open and Ssrin will massacre them. Them and everyone else on the ship. “You didn’t need to wait for your gas to work-–you could’ve come out and murdered everyone. Why didn’t you—”

“I wanted to be good!” That rattle, that rasp, it could be menace, could be rage, but Anna hears pain and knows it and trembles with the closeness between them, the terrible congruence. “I’d spilled enough blood, done enough evil-–I smelled kinship on you, Anna, smelled calculation, thought you would make a bargain with me. But it always comes back to the fang. Always. The cosmos has no time for the weak.”

A hush, except for the ragged asynchronous breath of nine throats.

“What did you do?” Ssrin asks. “Tell me, before I kill you, and the rest.”

The officer in the red beret put the pistol into her small steady hands and pointed her towards the line of prisoners his men had pulled from the truck.

“This is the bargain,” he said. “Execute one of these captives, and I will spare one of your villagers. Execute two and I will spare ten. Execute three and I will spare twenty. Four, and I spare forty. Five, I spare eighty. All six, and I spare them all.”

Six against a hundred and nine. Anna could do figures. And that was all there was, all there could be. It seemed simple.

God save her and the six too.

“I will do it,” she said. She slid the safety off the pistol, just as father had shown her. She heard the noise of the soldier Tachid training his own weapon on her.

“Bring out the first one,” the officer said. “Let’s see if the girl is bluffing.”

They dragged a man in front of her and pulled the sack from his head. He was bruised and his face was swollen, but he was clearly Ronas, handsome darling of the dances, pursued by many but unbearably taken with a girl he could never have. Anna did not know who.

“What?” He blinked in groggy shock. “Ciwana, is that you?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “Be still.”

She held the pistol in her too-small hands and put him in the center of the sights. Dear God, she thought: if this is wrong please reach down your hand. You are quick and you are powerful, so if you can, please stop me.

She pulled the trigger. The pistol spoke. The recoil wrenched her arms in her sockets and she grunted, but it was the only sound she made.

Her childhood and her faith in God sprayed across the rocks with Ronas’ brains. His body fell away to the side. The officer made a soft clucking noise with his tongue. “You have earned a single life. Now, again.”

The next prisoner was her brother Merdo. The cut beneath his left eye went almost to the bone. “Anna! What are you doing?”

It’s not fair, she thought. He should have at least been last, so he would count for more.

But on the other side of her grief, in the shadow beneath it, she could feel the truth. Ronas, too, had been a brother, and a son, and she had not hesitated.

“Is our father dead?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes, they shot him in the lung, and dragged him away. I think he is dead.”

“And mother?”

“And mother too, I think, but I didn’t see. What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry, Merdo,” she said, “but I have to get to six if I’m going to save everyone.”

“Anna, wait!” he cried.

The recoil turned her halfway around and she nearly dropped the pistol. But she did not miss.

Silence behind her. She spoke through: “Please bring me the next one. I have to save them all.”

alt=“I’m sorry,” Ssrin says, although it sounds like she’s never even thought those words before. “Is the burden heavy? Will you be glad when I kill you?” And then a short, sharp rattle in her throats, a sob or a laugh: “I wonder if we have different ideas of comfort.”

Anna’s crying silently. She’s not ashamed, even though Ssrin can probably smell her tears. Some of it is gladness. “I’ve never talked about it,” she says. “Ah, God. I didn’t even-–didn’t even try to find another way. I just did what he said. Like I was one of the jash.”

“There was no other way,” Ssrin says. “He spoke with force. You did the right thing.”

“Yeah?” Anna knuckles her eyes. “Can you smell that, too?”

“Not yet.” Softly: “But I think you did right. For all that’s worth.”

The right of a murderer with a body count higher than all Earth’s summed tyrants.

Anna sits for a moment, thinking about the apocalypse. She’s not Li Aixue, prodigy. Not Erik Wygaunt with his mind for command. But she can put the pieces together.

“Ssrin,” she says. “Your people. You said you were trying to beat them. Are they coming for Earth?”


It always comes back to the fang, the blood bargain, the man in the red beret.

“And when they get here–-if they’re hunting the same secret, this thing in our brains, this key-–what will they do?”

“Mass landings.” Ssrin’s voice flat edict. “Millions of your people rendered down to brain tissue and processed. They’ll use brute-force inference to deduce the cipher from the mark it leaves on matter-–the decay products that occur when the poiesis violates causal closure.”

And she says this next part with weary familiarity, with the guilt of old collusion: “When they have the key, they will destroy all life on Earth. The Exordia will not let the secret of secrets fall into the hands of their rivals.”

Too big to mean anything to Anna. Too huge for any response except abstract dismay. “Why us?”

“An accident of viral spread. There were other host species. Lost, though, during the Cessation Age.”

“But if you get the key first, if you get your brains and you find it, you can stop them.”

“No.” Vacuum-cold hiss. “Nothing can stop them.”

Of course not. Nobody ever stops the monsters.

Anna gets up on her haunches. “There has to be something. There has to be a way.” Some price to pay. Someone to aim the pistol at, knowing: you die, and the rest live. “If we give you the ten you asked for. If we give you more.”

“Nothing,” Ssrin says, “can save this world.”

“You’re going to find a way—”

“This is what happens now. I kill every human in my ship. I gather your brains as samples. I find a way to break the security lockdown before the Exordia fleet arrives, and I carry what I have to the rebellion.” Light kindles in the dark, a brief blue spark-–Ssrin, a medusa shadow, testing a sleek bladed weapon. “Maybe, if I bring them the encryption key, they can find a way to stop my people from cracking reality open and rewriting it. That’s all there is. The only way forward.”

It’s Anna’s whole world, the end of everything. The Columbian apocalypse everyone was afraid of. She should feel something.

But her wiring’s been broken for a long time now.

She sits in the dark and thinks about vast new bargains, and when she speaks again, her words come clotted in old blood. “When do your people get here?”

“A few days. Or a few hours. I must be gone by then.”

“Give me the radio,” Anna says.

Someone else makes the rules. Someone else says: you spend this blood, and you save that flesh.

But Anna makes the choice.

Ssrin throws her the radio. It bounces off Anna’s shoulder in the dark and falls into her lap. “Warn them I’m coming, if you want. You’ll only make them afraid before they die.”

“It’s not about that,” Anna says. The numbers are bigger here, but the calculation is the same. “You came here on a mission. You can still complete it, if you find a way to fix your ship. And what then? You save the universe? You’re the hero?”

“No one,” Ssrin says, “will ever call us heroes. Not you. Not I.”

Ssrin smelled it on her, through the glass. The ability to do this. What must be done.

Anna clicks the radio on. “Professor Li.”

“Anna! I’m here. Wygaunt’s men are about to-–” A soldier in the background snaps at her. “They’re, uh, standing by.”

“Tell Erik I’ve reached a deal with the alien. We’re going to assist it with repairs to its ship. We’re going to help it complete its mission. In exchange, we get the antidote.”

Glare dazzles Anna. Ssrin’s got a light mounted to one of her heads, snugged beneath the little jaw. Anna wants to giggle.

“That’s amazing, Anna.” Profound relief in Li Aixue’s voice. “Power’s off shipwide, we’re all worried about the air – I’ll tell Wygaunt right away.”

Anna puts the radio down on the deck between her knees. Her throat feels sick when she speaks. “Ssrin. Listen. They have at least one world-class mathematician. A few people from the NSA, too, codebreakers and computer guys. They can help you with the security lockdown. They can find you the brain tissue you need.”

Ancient, cold wariness in Ssrin’s voice. The weight of a billion murders. “Do you think you can deceive me?”

“No,” Anna says. “You smelled it on me. You know what I’m capable of. You were right: I understand.”

The arithmetic, this time around:

Earth is gone. Seven billion dead, no matter what. Ssrin’s people are coming and no god or dream of man can stop them.

So Anna tries to fight Ssrin, and Ssrin kills her and Erik Wygaunt and Li Aixue and everyone else on Blackbird, and maybe she gets what she’s after and escapes Earth before the hammer falls. But maybe not. Maybe Ssrin fails and her people win. Who dies then? Everything, she says. Everything that will ever be. The Zoroastrian Armageddon gone wrong, the final renovation of the universe cast in shadow. Angra Mainyu triumphant. The world devoured.

Or Anna helps Ssrin. Anna brokers a deal with Wygaunt and his soldiers: help the alien, and she’ll save our lives. She’ll do right by us.

Not that they’d go along with the deal if they saw what price they’d have to pay. If they saw the end coming.

Help Ssrin. Fix her ship. Forfeit Earth and everyone on it.

But the price has to be paid. The figures are clear. They can’t save the world: just help Ssrin save all the rest. A child could make the choice, if she were broken in the right ways.

It’s a little like destiny.

“You give us the antidote,” Anna husks, and has to stop to cough. “And we help you. We’ll make sure you have a chance.” The idea hits her like recoil: “I’ll go with you. Take us all with you. So a few of us can live.”

“You’ll burden me. I would be wise to kill you all.”

Anna smiles, a rictus the alien might understand: bare teeth, wide eyes, fear sweat. “But this is the right thing to do, Ssrin.”

“They’ll panic when you tell them. They will see the end of their world rising, and they will lash out.”

“I’m not going to tell them,” Anna says, and puts her head between her knees. Curls up like a nautilus, shutting out the world: even though it leaves her alone with the thing she hates most.

She could warn them, Wygaunt and Li and the rest. Tell them about the alien fleet on its way. And they’d look for a way out, a nuclear attack or a computer virus, some act of technological heroism. But they won’t stop the aliens, any more than the peshmerga could stop the Iraqis. So she’ll be silent, and save as many as she can.

She feels Ssrin’s hands, cold, smooth: on her brow, her shoulder, and then, the gesture stiff but still strong, killing strength held in check, Ssrin’s arm wrapped around her. Held for a moment (and Anna takes it as comfort) before Ssrin tugs her to her feet.

Anna clings to her, mistrusting her knees. “Where’s the antidote?”

“Here,” Ssrin murmurs. The fangs of her fourth head prick Anna’s neck, a gentle puncture, a bloom of warmth. “A special gland. I keep it close.”

The hatch geysers light and fire: a ring of thermite, burning all around the rim, cutting through, the way it hadn’t cut the outer hull. Wygaunt’s soldiers pin them in the glare of lasers and tactical lights, shouting down, down, get down!

Anna holds up her hands and steps between them and Ssrin. Two serpents peer over her shoulders. The soldiers flinch.

“Stop,” she says. “I’m okay, I’m okay. She’s on our side.”

When the medics and the soldiers leave, when Erik and his wary guard take Ssrin to the ship’s command, Anna finds herself alone with the prodigy.

“Strange to think it’s almost over.” Li Aixue shakes her head and smiles ruefully. “We found a starship. I thought maybe I’d get to see the stars.”

“You will,” Anna chokes. “We’re all going to see-–such things.”

“Anna.” Li touches her shoulder gingerly. She’s shy, Anna realizes, and it surprises her: she’s always seen Li as such a titan. “What’s wrong?”

Someone in the direction of the command center shouts in excitement. The lights snap back on. Blackbird, waking up again. The bargain underway.

Ssrin’s people will come. The world will burn. Everyone except the crew of Blackbird, the ones Anna saved.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Anna says, though she feels Li’s offered arm through phantom scales, though she tastes old blood and new poison in the place beneath her tongue. “I did the right thing.” And, raising her eyes to Li’s: “I did the right thing.”

It was harder last time.


Seth Dickinson’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog, Strange Horizons, and more. He is a writer at Bungie Studios, an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. His first novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, will be published by Tor Books in fall 2015.

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