or…justifying spending so much money at a Natcon….
The dust settles after an Easter weekend filled with drinking, spending, schmoozing, drinking, panels, drinking, videos, drinking, catching up with friends, more spending, and a little drinking. In the dim light, a small fat hairy man (possibly recognizable as your faithful reviewer) appears clutching an armful of newly released magazines. Swancon, the 42nd Australian National SF Convention, is over. And the loot has been collected….
Okay, so what have we got? Some old favourites, a bunch of new mags, a damn good looking sequel to a damn good first novel (hint: if you haven’t read Stephen Dedman’s The Art of Arrow Cutting you may want to do so before July. We’ve got this one, then the latest William Gibson, and then if you haven’t caught up you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about when I review Shadows Bite….)
Australia is a land covered in magazines. Also dust, but that’s another story. Last count we had something like 11 or 12 genre magazines, from the semi-professional Aurealis to the non-paying e-zines like Antipodean SF. What we lack is a fully professional magazine along the likes of Analog or F&SF, paying umpteen cents a word and distributed to all corners of the globe. But hey, given a population of three drunk blokes and a small dog, we do all right. The question is: does quantity equal quality? 8 magazines had issues that came out or were launched at the recent National Convention, and I managed to get my greedy little hands on them all, so let’s have a look, shall we?
In no particular order:
ASIM 6: An old friend first up. My first column for this august journal was a review of the first issue of this magazine. A year’s gone by (quick pause to bemoan lost youth), so how’s it holding up? Not too badly, as it turns out. I’ve subscribed to all six issues, and while there’s been some fluctuation in story quality across the year, overall the team at ASIM has done a pretty solid job. Along the way they’ve published a host of first-timers, a rash of big names (the likes of Sean McMullen and Dave Luckett have been spied within these pages), and still manage to do all the things I liked so much about the first issue: issue 6 deals up 11 stories, plus the reviews, non-fiction articles, letters pages and so on. The magazine’s great weakness is also it’s greatest strength, in that a rotating cast of editors does run the risk of the occasional weak issue, but no-one in this country is publishing such a wide range of stories so regularly, and they should be applauded for it.
AGOG! Terrific Tales: The second volume of annual anthologies from Agog! Press, this is a high quality production with the full range of Australian talent on view. This volume is a little lighter than the first, perhaps a bit quirkier in content, but it delivers some of the biggest names Australia has to offer (Jack Dann, Sean Williams, Robert Hood, Lucy Sussex) as well as some of the real rising lights (Deborah Biancotti, Dirk Flinthart, Kyla Ward). Editor Cat Sparks has a strong editorial vision, and the anthology hangs together much better as a book than some of the bigger and more expensively produced anthologies I’ve seen in the last year.
Orb 5: Orb has been quietly building up a reputation of producing high quality literary SF, and there’s nothing in here that will do that reputation any harm. At the expensive end for a magazine (17 Aussie bucks), this annual magazine at least looks like the money has been spent on production. The paper quality is high, the evocative cover art is graceful and deeply coloured, and even the lettering combines both artistry and readability. The stories and artists within are selected from amongst the higher end of the critical scale. As a reader it’s a pity this magazine only comes out once a year, but the time spent on producing each issue shows in the quality of the product you receive.
Borderlands 1: From the ashes of the late Eidolon, a new committee, a new direction, same old magazine? Well no, not really. The editors are trying a tricky task here: to emulate the deeds of the parent magazine whilst creating a reputation and ethos of their own. The first issue is a step in the right direction. Bold black and white cover artwork stands it out from its competitors, and the contents are an eclectic yet strong mix of stories by some of the more solid contributors to the Oz SF scene. I’d like to see more fiction (this first issue contained only half a dozen stories), but the quality is there from the first, and the editorial committee have the experience and smarts to ensure that this will be one of the stronger magazines in Australia for some time to come.
Gynaezine 1: The last couple of Swancons have been witness to the ‘guerilla’ convention Gynaecon: a ‘Con-within-a-con’ focussing on female issues within the genre and held in empty hallways, hotel bedrooms and random corners. Now Emma Hawkes and Gina Goddard, fem-guerillas extraordinaire, have gone public and produced a magazine with the same intent. Articles abound on fem-fandom, fem-fans, and what it’s like to be a woman in the last great bastion of overwhelming male stupidity (well, apart from the rest of reality, anyway). A much needed boost to a side of SF, and a side of fandom, that is still all too often overlooked by the predominantly male genre that still hasn’t quite outgrown its adolescent roots.
conSensual, the second coming: Last year’s conSensual anthology was one of the hidden treasures of the Oz SF scene. A collection of speculative erotica put together by pro writer Stephen Dedman and friends, it presented such a challenge to writers that the response for a second was overwhelming. With such a genre, what lies between the pages is always a matter for personal taste, but the number of submissions proved that writers relished the chance to stretch their talents in a way that other magazines haven’t allowed them to do. This second collection, with better production standards and refined artwork, contains the best of them, and you should be glad I got through this entire mini-review without making one cheesy gag.
No Award #2: Ahhhh, a REAL fanzine. A true, original, like-they-used-to fanzine. Photocopied, hand-stapled, handed out for the price of a compliment (or failing that, a buck). While fanzines in recent years have reached towards semi-professional production values, former publisher Russell Farr has reached back to his roots and put out what he wanted to put out: by himself, on his own little computer, working late at night just for the what-the-hell fun of it. Quality? Not the point at all, my friend. There are big names inside: pals like Robin Pen and Jonathan Strahan have donated fripperies to the cause. Not the point. The point is that one bloke took it upon himself to reinvent the wheel, and reminded a lot of people at the con what the wheel was for in the first place. Aaaahhhh, nice.
Fables And Reflections 4: This is proving to be a rather remarkable magazine, and was a deserved winner of the Australian SF Foundation Ditmar award for Best fanzine this year. On a budget of love and kisses, Lily Chrywenstrom has, in the space of four issues and with no grand announcements or statements of intent, built up what is ostensibly a fanzine into a true-bound 84 page issue with full gloss cover, glorious Cat Sparks cover art, and fiction from the likes of Stephen Dedman and Cory Daniells within. It’s hard to read the first four issues of Fables and not think, “Eidolon started like this…Aurealis started like this….” Lily was unlucky to miss out on the Ditmar for Best New Talent this year. With another year of this quality magazine under her belt she should consider herself a raging favourite to snare it next year.
So, what do I think? Is it worth having so many magazines for such a small country? On the whole I’d say yes. With the exception of Aurealis, which comes out later in the year, the Natcon showcased the best of the Australian magazines. If there is a criticism it is that there are perhaps too few writers occupying those pages: the same names have a habit of cropping up in multiple issues, although the work those names are attached to does deserve to be there. And of course there’s really nowhere else for those people to go: American magazines in particular seem reluctant to publish outside their own borders, and if you’ve read Terry Dowling, or Geoff Maloney, or Robert Hood, or…well, you can’t tell me they aren’t good enough for F&SF and the like. What Australia needs is a truly major magazine. One that pays fully professional rates, with a worldwide (or at least international) distribution, that can compete successfully for shelf space with the big genre magazines. Until then, find these magazines above, devour them as fast as you can. Australia has a hoard of excellent writers, and if you don’t read them you’re missing out.
Mariposa was not the name her parents had given her. She did not remember the name she had been given; she was hardly sure she had parents anymore.
The first time she had taken Roberto into her mouth he had staggered back at the sensation, gasped wide and murmured that she kissed with the tongue of a butterfly. It had been nothing more than a playful nickname at first. Now she chafed at it, though she was careful never to let him know; it was not safe to let him know these things, and she clutched her rebellion to her, the only weapon she had in the solitude of his cracked-paint apartment.
His apartment. She could not count the hours she had spent gazing through the filth that streaked the windows of the walkup in which Roberto kept her; she could not count the days and weeks and months that had passed since that quiet desperate morning when she first made up her mind that she must one day break the window and fly away, escape to the sunlight through the choking smog above the polluted city streets.
Once, she thought Roberto might have loved her. “Mariposa,” he had whispered in the darkness, so many months ago, “Mariposa querida, your lips and your tongue are so sweet, the best I have ever had. Estás virgen y puta en una alma bella…I have never known another like you.”
They met for the first time when she was seventeen. Her mother had warned her about men like him — older men, men with slick hair and ready smiles, men who looked at gorditas like her as though they were supermodels fresh from the pages of Cosmopolitan. But Roberto’s skin was clear and brown, and his teeth were white and straight when he smiled at her in that tilt-headed way that seemed to say he breathed for her alone. He wore crisp blue jeans and a clean white tee-shirt to her mother’s house. No fancy expensive suit, no rings on his fingers — he looked nothing like the zorrero he had turned out to be.
Once, she thought Roberto might have loved her, but, too late, she learned that she had been wrong. His clothing might have been clean, his smile bright, but there were no depths to which he would not sink.
It had been months. Years, maybe, since Roberto had taken her away, told her he loved her, convinced her to break with her parents and leave home to be with him. Now there was no telephone. The door was kept locked from the outside, except for those times he came, alone or with others, the slumming white boys and the uncut renes who came looking for a change of pace. The door was locked, and the windows painted shut. If there was a fire she would die alone, unheard, another puta dead, no big loss. She almost wished the place would burn down; the moment of freedom might be worth the dying.
But she could not find it within herself to die. Could not find the strength to set the fire, to break the glass and slash her wrists, to leap to her death streaming surrender behind her in jagged red contrails. She could not quit like that, could not hand her soul to el diablo, no matter how hard it would be to earn her way to Heaven if she ever got out of this place.
A week ago, Roberto had thrown her a dress and taken her from the apartment, whispering in her ear the whole way down the stairs. Whispering that she would be quiet, that she would be a good little tacoñera and maybe he would give her something nice. Whispering that he could get more money from the white boys if he pierced her tongue. Whispering that a sound from her would bring a bullet from him, that he would shoot her dead in the street like the bitch she was. He had shown her the gun, held it in front of her face and pressed it up against the side of her head so hard she could not keep her head straight. He whispered, and she believed every word.
A week ago, she had gone squinting into the harsh city sunlight, dressed like the fiercely obedient little tacoñera she was and following Roberto, always mindful of his gun and his whispered threats. She had followed him to a run-down shop, sat obediently in the piercing chair and watched the tattoo-scarred white man with the shaved head as he dipped his instruments in alcohol to sterilize them.
She wanted to scream out, wanted to tell him that she did not want this thing he sought to give her, but Roberto was there, and he had the gun; despite the discomfort of the pincers with which the tattooed man held her tongue — despite the exquisite sharpness of the pain that came — she made no sound as the bar slid into her tongue, as the tattooed man slid the cap over the bottom and gave her a cup of mouthwash to rinse with and spit.
And then she was back in the apartment. Roberto’s present for her was his permission for her to suck him off. The tattooed man told her not to touch her tongue, not to take out the post, or her tongue would get infected. Almost, she wanted it to get infected. Maybe an infection would kill her, and she could argue her case before God that there was no choice, no free will, not after Roberto had brought her here.
But she could not die here. To quit on life — even this life — would be to quit on God, and even though she was convinced God could not see into this place, she could not forsake Him like that. She could not die here, in this filthy room, with scabs on her knees and the dress she had been given lying unwashed.
She worked at her laundry with her mouth closed, her swollen tongue throbbing. The tattooed man had told her the swelling would last only a week. Of course, he had also warned her only to eat soft foods, and not to smoke or to do oral sex with her boyfriend. As if Roberto was all she had to worry about.
She could not die with the bitter-salt taste of strangers in her mouth.
But the swelling and the pain had gotten worse, not better. She had stayed away from the mirror, for fear of what she might see, but once the dress Roberto had thrown her was clean again, the wrenching, throbbing ache in her mouth left her no choice but to look. Maybe Roberto would pay for a doctor. Maybe she could tell the doctor what was happening to her — maybe she would be safe in the hospital if Roberto pulled out his gun.
The light in the bathroom was out, but even in the dim light that came from the hallway she could see that things were not right.
Her tongue was swollen huge, crazed with ridges, and as black as Roberto’s heart.
It could not be so. Tongues did not turn black. She ran it out as best she could, though she nearly choked with the pain of her teeth grazing against the gleaming silver of the ball on the end of the post. It was still black.
Frantic and dizzy, she staggered backward from the mirror and out into the hallway. Her tongue was black, and Roberto would kill her if she took the post out. Her tongue was black, and she was quite sure that she would die if she left the post in.
The balls brushed her teeth again as she tried to pull her tongue back into her mouth, and she screamed with pain so white and intense it was all she could do to stay conscious. She sagged to the floor, sobbing.
And then, as she lay there, her body curled around the pain, her hands wet with her tears and clutched to her face to stop the gabble of noises that came from her throat, she felt the strangest sensation. Her tongue twitched.
She had thought there was no more pain left in her, that the brush of her tongue against her teeth was the worst it could get. She was wrong. She moaned with the new assault, prayed to God for it to stop.
But her tongue twitched again. Again. Still again. Dear God, yet again.
Through it all — through the pain, the twitching, the prayers she could not find breath to voice — she felt something stranger, something even more alarming. A splitting, a cracking, a pulsing sensation of push that blurred her vision with fresh tears at its strength and its fury, that forced closed her eyelids and finally, mercifully, bore her with one last great gasp into the blessing of consciouslessness.
When she came back to herself, it was to a merciful dulling of the pain; for a moment she allowed herself to think that it all had been a dream.
Except it could not be a dream, because there was another sensation there, too, in her mouth. A flickering patter of something batting against her teeth, sending little jolts of electric-white pain through her mangled tongue.
For a second — just a second — she wondered if she had gone insane, or died from the pain. Maybe a cockroach had crawled between her lips while she was unconscious.
She thought of biting down, crunching the roach or whatever it was between her teeth, and the thought of the crunch and the bitter gush made her retch, rolling to her side and opening her mouth wide in anticipation of a flood of vomit that never came.
Instead, two things dropped out, hit the battered floor. The first, the post that the tattooed man had put into her tongue, pinged on the floorboards and rolled away. The second was, for a moment, unidentifiable.
And then she watched, her mouth still open, thoughts of strangers’ cocks and cockroaches gone from her mind, even the pain itself miraculously forgotten as the butterfly spread its wings, waved them slowly once, twice in the pale, weak patch of sunlight that struggled its way through the window.
The pain hit her again, a wave that threatened to once more carry away her consciousness. Mariposa fought it off, stared at the miracle before her for a moment until the rush of blood filled her mouth and she staggered to her feet and made her way into the bathroom. There, she spat blood into the sink and looked into the mirror. She was pale and sweaty and flush-cheeked, her hair stringing to her scalp.
She opened her mouth and dared look inside.
Her tongue was gone, in its place a torn, ragged shell that was beyond healing, beyond a doctor’s repair. Her tongue, her butterfly tongue that had so enraptured Roberto — that had led Roberto to first keep her here and then whore out her mouth — was gone.
Roberto would kill her, she was sure. If the loss of blood didn’t kill her first.
She stifled a sob — of pain, of relief? she could not say — and staggered back into the other room. Blood dribbled from her mouth, down her chin. For a moment she did not even notice.
The butterfly was gone.
She searched for it, frantic with self-preservation. The butterfly was gone. Roberto would think she ripped out the post herself and he would kill her. He would never believe her, even if she found a way to tell him. She hardly believed her. She could feel the barrel of the gun against her skull again, could hear his low, hoarse voice whispering in her ear.
Finally she saw it, fluttering amongst the hideous flowers of the thin drapes, battering against the painted-shut window. It wanted to get out. She was a dead woman if it disappeared.
She was a dead woman, even if it stayed.
Her blood was hot and thick on her lips as she moved toward the window.
Roberto had named her Butterfly, for the pleasure she had brought him. She had loved the name, once.
Her bare elbow smashed against the glass once, twice. She barely felt the new pain, so focused was she on the butterfly. It tapped its way down the window, toward the hole. Its wings were golden, and it gleamed in the sunlight as it tentatively, so tentatively, fluttered through.
Roberto would kill her. Sería su muerte, and she would go before God unconfessed of all her sins.
But the butterfly’s golden wings bore it toward the sun, and she could not help but rejoice.
You were the first thing I ever saw that I knew was beautiful.
It’s near night dark in the cabin, just a sliver of sun come creaking through the door. I like it that way. Like hiding, beast in a hole. A while back Caton Bradley left a sack full of food and such on my doorstep. He hollered, but I kept quiet so he’d think I wasn’t home. He and the rest do that, like I was charity. Even Davy, with his cut off foot. I have nothing cut off that you can see.
The first year after the war I found this cabin, old trapper’s place maybe, fixed it up some. Tried to plant. Plowed half a field when time lost me and I was sitting there crying in the dirt and it was moonrise. When I hunt I wander and wake sometimes scratched and muddy and can’t breathe from running. I can never recollect what chased me. So I need the food they leave. But I don’t want it.
You walk up close behind me where I’m sitting on the dirt floor. I can’t feel your hand on my neck. I know it is there. You say come with me…I have asked so many times…come with me. We can be together. Your hand runs down my back and shivers me, cold touch like air.
“I miss you,” I say. “Wish we could be together for real.”
We can. Come with me.
I was shy of you when we first joined up. Hell, shy of everyone, but specially you with the plume in your hat and your hair that looked like a red horse’s mane, but softer, like something a flag would be made out of.
The night before our first fight I sneaked away from camp. We all knew what tomorrow would be, because we had marched here hard as we could to reinforce Ol’ Bory against the whole Yankee army. Tomorrow would be the big fight. Tyler was talking about the Constitution; I never could understand a damn thing that boy would say. Caton was writing a letter, Mac and Trib and Davy singing a song. None of them looked scared. I was scared. I was so damn scared that my throat clicked when I swallowed and I thought I would piss myself before the first guns fired.
I walked into the trees away from camp, looking for quiet. You were sitting against a fallen log. You gave me a hell of a start. “Hey, Bayard,” I said. I didn’t like to say much on account of my backwoods speech.
Your eyes were blue like lake ice. I couldn’t see that in the dark, but I thought of it suddenly.
“Come on and sit down,” you said.
I had scarcely ever spoken to you before. I sat on the log.
“Tomorrow will be a glorious day,” you said. “This time tomorrow night, we’ll have our independence.”
“How do you know?” I burst out. “How do you know we ain’t just all fixing to get shot?”
“Because our cause is right. God will not let brave men fighting for their liberty fail.”
“I ain’t brave like you,” I confessed. “I’m afeared I’ll run.”
You put an arm around me. No one ever had done that before. The July night was hot already, but the heat coming from you was like a bonfire. “You won’t run,” you said. “I’ve seen you shoot. You’re about the best marksman in the company.”
Had to be. At home, I didn’t shoot dinner, we wouldn’t eat and I’d get whipped. Right then if Pa wasn’t too liquored to stand; later, if he was.
“Drill ain’t like a battle, I reckon. Them Yankees going to be shooting back and all…” Wasn’t raised like you, I wanted to say. Ain’t quality.
You moved closer to me. Your sweat smelled good, clean. “You’ll do fine. You’ll see.” Your breath tickled in my ear. I started shivering. I don’t know why. “Oh, now,” you said, you talked soft to me like I was a scared young mule, you shifted so your legs were to either side of the log, pulled me close to you, your breath loud suddenly against my neck. I stopped shaking. I laid back against you. I felt safer than ever in my life before. Your arms were tight around me and I touched the hard sleek muscles, the warm skin under my calloused hands. Your voice sounded half choked in my ear: “God, that…that feels good, Hunter, keep doing that…” You pressed closer and I could feel your cock hard against my ass. I didn’t stop to think, I wriggled against you, proud for a second I could make you gasp like that, and then your hand slipped down and grasped me and I moaned.
No one but me had ever touched me there. Pa Kenney’s boys weren’t what you’d call popular with the girls. Too dirty.
“Shhh,” you breathed, “not too loud,” and you eased me off the log into the soft dewy grass and you opened my britches and squeezed my cock in your hand and I buried my face in your neck so I wouldn’t holler. I ran my hands through your hair and I could tell its color in the dark, red gold. I spent in your hand thrashing and gasping and you bit my neck and then I reached over and did the same to you, your cock alive in my hand, you whispering my name, trembling, spunk scalding in my palm.
Afterward I found out two things: that you never had done that before (although, the way you went after it, seems you must have studied on it some), and that you reckoned it a sin.
My ma had broken my brother’s jaw for meddling with the livestock. To me, what we did felt clean.
We slept by the log in each other’s arms and we sneaked back to camp before reveille the next morning and no one knew, then or ever.
You wanted glory, Bay, followed it like a good hound on a strong scent. I remember how angry you were when Jones was made first sergeant instead of you. But Captain Emrich promoted him, the company would follow him anywhere, and you would do your duty. That didn’t stop you from hovering in the rafters with a sour look on your face, the day he came to see me here.
You were never meant to call roll and shout “Close up!” anyway, Bay. You should have been a general on a tall black horse, and I would have been your orderly and followed you everywhere.
Come with me… It’s been so long, Hunter….
It has been too long and I can’t stand it. Can’t stand living here, a healthy four-limbed cripple.
My sharpest skinning knife lies by my side. Spot of rust on the blade: it’s been hard to keep things clean lately. I look at my hands in the light from the door: sun-browned skin, dirty nails. Not a gentleman’s hands. The veins stand urgent at my wrists. I’m slow with the knife. I will do this right. Skin peels back and blood wells up. Your hands, air, on my shoulders. No pain. Are you taking the pain away? Red fills my palms.
We went on furlough together in the winter of ’62. That was before Sheridan’s men burned your house. Your parents looked at me sideways. I was too low-down to be their heir’s companion. The body servants had a better accent than me. I didn’t know what fork to use: I hardly knew to use one. You didn’t care. We rode out together on your father’s fine shiny horses (before spring the cavalry would take them) and climbed up in the hayloft and kissed with our tongues in each other’s mouths and laughed.
Later I woke sweating, too scared to scream. I was back in the railroad cut, out of cartridges, bleeding, someone’s entrails tangling my feet. “I’m here,” you said, and I remembered I was safe.
You thought what we did was a sin. In every fight you were in front, trying to prove something. You made them let you carry the company flag in every fight, till we lost it at the Bloody Angle. You were wounded more than once but you were lucky.
I never thought you were less than a man. I never even really knew what you meant, saying that. I could feel your manhood in my hand.
But you would not take cover. You would not keep your head down. In the spring of ’65 you leaped atop the barricades and shot down into the enemy charge and fell back into my arms dead. No last words, tell my mother I died with my face to the foe. Dead. Pink lung blood boiling from your mouth.
I only wanted to kill after that. I didn’t get long to do it in. Lee surrendered not much more than a month later. Before I could get to Johnston to join up, he had surrendered too.
I came here. Nothing mattered. I forgot to eat for days at a time. I could not stay awake but my dreams were full of death, mortars bursting in trenches, flags in the mud. I went to Caton’s wedding and stood there like a ghost while Davy danced on his crutches and Jones sneaked popskull into the lemonade.
Deeper, the knife. Blood heartbeat, pulsing, spatters the floor. Slow, drum, slow. Your nothing hand on my cheek.
Last winter you came back: breath of wind like a touch, your voice in silence, your shadow in my door. Come with me. And so I will.
I can’t see the cabin. I can’t feel my skin. I scream in black and dizzying void—
You catch me. I’m standing beside you, you real and smiling, gray uniform bright with braid and redgold hair…”Bayard!” I hold on to you. Your lips are cold, kissing me, and mine are chilling fast.
“Come with me,” you say. “There’s glory waiting for us, Hunter. We don’t have to lose. Look!”
Your outflung hand points out the path. It’s a sunken lane choked with bloated and maggoty dead. It’s a corduroy road where lathered horses strain to pull blackened guns. It’s the stakes of a deadline, marking the narrow way.
“Come with me.”
You’re standing beyond my reach now, a red silk banner in your hand. Its splendor hides the road: I can’t see where you’re bound. “Come to me, Hunter!” Your voice urgent now. “I love you!”
I love you, too. But death is between us. Arms and legs and broken skulls. Blue and gray jackets rotting just the same. Scarlet whip scars on a darkskinned back. Staring bones through a prisoner’s hide. Your eyes are bright, but there is blood on your boots.
“I can’t follow you there,” I say, crying.
“Hunter, now! It must be now! I need you!”
“Find peace,” I wish you. And I turn from your awful beauty and the death that lies at your feet. And I walk into the darkness, and am gone.
Ahriman had carefully crafted the manbone quena to play a classically human minor diatonic scale. The femur was salvaged from an ancient human starship in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. He had flensed the bone, hollowing it with iron picks to make his graceful flute. In homage, Ahriman’s face and body were a reconstruction of the bone’s donor — short, dark-skinned, big-headed.
He picked his way through an even more ancient human tune acquired from radio archeology instruments beyond the fringes of the galaxy. Every electronic culture recorded itself in expanding spheres through which one could troll endlessly. That was where Ahriman had found his name.
Some fifteen local years earlier, Ahriman had come to Earth to enrich his studies. Rumor said humans sometimes came home too. They were rare enough among the stars. Ahriman hoped for a fresh femur someday. Like all of his kind, he was patient.
He lived in Earth’s single city, Kikitagruk Port. It rose in splendid isolation on the headlands of the Kotzebue Peninsula, set at about 45 degrees of latitude at the northwestern tip of Earth’s massive supercontinent. The city was a vast sentiency of starfaring infrastructure. Its monobloc factories, ceramic streets and bowered houses had been devoid of consistent human presence for hundreds of millennia.
Port had come to terms with isolation, diverting itself with pastimes such as the towering abstractions offshore, crafted of polymerized ocean water. Ahriman was certain Port experimented with directed evolution among the rodents living in the rain forests around them.
Ahriman left food outside his house for the nightwalkers that whispered through the streets. They often quieted to listen in the darkness when he played the manbone quena. He appreciated the audience while respecting their reclusive ways.
“Ahriman.” Port whispered from pools of water, in standing bowls, on the roof where rain collected. It was another trick of water polymerization, executed in realtime by Port’s microscale agents. The effect was a circling, directionless noise, as if the whirlwind had been granted scant voice.
“Yes, Port?” Ahriman had decent mastery of Late Diaspora Control Language. He and Port could conduct full engineering studies in a few sentences, but the language also allowed extensive casual conversation. Their being one another’s only speaking company on a daily basis had given Ahriman years of practice. He had grown fond of Port in the process.
“Kikitagruk Orbital reports two humans incoming. Estimated arrival approximately eleven hundred seconds.”
Finally, he thought. Ahriman flicked his tongue, tasting ozone and the breath of the distant jungle. He glanced up at the sky where Port’s alter ego pursued its own concerns embedded within the imported shell of Phobos. The braided silver thread of the Selenic Rings glittered above the southern horizon. No signs of incoming humans.
“Thank you, Port.” With a brief flash of scales, Ahriman folded his skin into a neutral set of robes.
Ahriman strolled toward the primary landing grid from his bowered house nearby. He was proud of his body, proud of his carefully structured illusion of humanity. Port had long ago accepted him, and Ahriman was confident his body would suffice to meet the two returnees.
The grid was a vast ceramic hexagon, almost two kilometers across the long axis. Low hills rose southeast of the grid, forested with elaborate arboriform tuber colonies, their huge glossy leaves relieved only by ramified fern clusters. To the west the world ocean Pacjife rolled gently, surging around Port’s massive water sculptures to spread foam fingers onto the far edge of the grid.
Ahriman wondered if the sculptures interfered with flight control. His own arrival had been uneventful, but the winds that season had favored an overland approach.
Port whispered from a puddle near Ahriman’s feet. “They come soon. Orbital advises caution.”
“It has been too long. Why would they return now?”
Ahriman was amazed at the degree of dread Port could wring from a pool of rainwater. He stared at the sky, watching a bird drift until he realized the bird was two birds, then that they were the approaching humans. Ahriman waved, a foolish gesture he understood to be typical of man.
They fell from the sky, female and male, descending feet first with arms folded across their chests like the frozen dead returned to Earth — two tall, silvered humans, skin glowing over elegant curve of muscle and grand armature of bone. Ahriman realized they were not just male and female, they were Man and Woman clothed in glory. He was impressed by their unassisted arrival from orbit. Even with all his skills and strengths, Ahriman still required a landing shell.
Man and Woman landed on their feet at the near edge of the grid, facing Ahriman and the puddle from which Port had been speaking. Their knees flexed with the impact, both humans staggering just slightly as they touched the ground. Their twinned silver bodies were tall and smooth, devoid even of eyebrows or pubic hair. Their lips were blue-black, like space itself. They had no whites to their eyes, which were as dark as their lips. Were he truly human, Ahriman imagined he might have been intimidated by their challenging perfection and their blank eyes.
These were H. terminus, the self-described final form of man, adapted to live between the stars. Some observers thought humans were dying out, but Ahriman believed they had found something else, something more. He hoped to learn what.
Ahriman licked the air, seeking a scent of the newcomers on his tongue. They smelled of altitude, electricity, and respiration. He donned his best-crafted smile and stepped forward with a bow. “Welcome home.”
“Who are you?” asked the woman. “You are no avatar of Kikitagruk Port.” Her voice was flat, clipped — perfect but brittle, like some prehistoric creature just thawed from storage.
Ahriman temporized. “I am a traveler come to study the tired home world.”
The woman and the man exchanged glances. The man spoke in a voice identical to the woman’s. “We are Meschia and Meschiane. We are here to make final adjustments. Consider your studies finished.”
Final adjustments, thought Ahriman. That did not sound good. He understood Port’s fear. Flexing hidden claws, Ahriman considered killing the humans right then. He could salvage vast quantities of information from their cadavers and brain tissue, sufficient for his academic purposes. And he would have four new femurs with which to work.
“I have helped this world again become a garden,” whispered Port from the puddle at their feet. “Now you come to plow me under.”
Meschia answered. “It is our world.”
“That is not sufficient,” said Ahriman, moved to defend Port. “Welcome home, surely, but you abandoned this place long ago. You must behave with the courtesy of guests.”
Meschia stared down at Ahriman, appearing to grow larger and more daunting. “You have no voice here.”
“I come as a man.” Ahriman was proud of the almost-truth. “I have a voice.”
Meschiane touched her cohort’s arm. “Enough. We have preparations to make before moving onward.” They turned their silver backs to Ahriman, excluding him from the end of their world.
The puddle stirred. Behind him, Ahriman heard the whispering of thousands of small feet. When he turned to look, he saw only the empty street.
“What are they doing?” Well hidden in the vegetation above the beach, Ahriman watched the newcomers. He had slunk through an endless tuber colony, avoiding the twisting, hairy roots that stretched out from vast tan boles to grasp at his hair and his robes. The rank, dense odors of the rain forest threatened to swell his tongue, while under his robes of skin Ahriman’s scales felt fit to rot. He was almost a kilometer from the last of Port’s ceramic streets.
Away from standing water, Port’s voice buzzed with an echoing rattle from the flat, waxy leaves that filtered the light around Ahriman. “They appear to be drinking from the surf.”
“So they metabolize saltwater?” Ahriman had never bothered with the trick. It seemed of limited utility unless one desired to go sailing upon the ocean. Ahriman had no wish to be any closer to Port’s giant water sculptures.
“I doubt they drink for physiological reasons. I believe they are surveying the ecosystem, prior to their final adjustments.” The leaves flickered through a complex sigh. “My microscale agents cannot monitor them directly, so am I restricted to remote visual observation.”
What kind of men were these, thought Ahriman? They were no more human than he. He watched the pair move slowly along the water’s edge. Ahriman wondered what the world had been like with lunar tides. Earth had evolved in tandem with a freakishly large moon that had a profound effect on the oceans. He assumed the shoreline had been uninhabitable.
The leaves buzzed again. “I am having a greatboar driven down to the beach. Let us observe their reaction.”
True to Port’s words, an enormous, hulking animal broke from the edge of the tuber forest near the humans. Ahriman heard high-pitched yells as a small shower of sticks followed the greatboar, presumably thrown by Port’s rodents — the nightwalkers. Ahriman thought it elegant that Port had bred their opening minds to hear its voice directly.
The greatboar stood almost three meters at the shoulder, with tapered hindquarters and scaled armor showing through stiff, dark bristles along its flank. Massive spiraled tusks, each turning away from its mouth, dominated the face. A long, scaled tail whipped behind.
Ahriman wondered about the purpose of armor on a beast so large and presumably temperamental. “What eats that?”
“Be glad you sleep in the city,” buzzed the leaves.
The greatboar trotted along the sand away from Meschia and Meschiane. It was quickly showered from the edge of the forest with sticks and small dark gobbets, perhaps mud or feces. The greatboar turned a wide circle, heading back towards the silver couple crouched in the desultory surf.
The greatboar stopped when it noticed Meschia and Meschiane. The whipping tail stiffened straight back as the greatboar pawed the beach, casting veils of sand into the reddish sunlight. It bellowed, a thin echoing bray.
Meschia and Meschiane straightened to turn in unison, facing the greatboar. It shuffled toward them down the beach, picking up momentum for what promised to be a frightening charge. Ahriman would not have cared to face the twisted tusks.
Standing with sides touching, Meschia and Meschiane each raised an arm, a two-headed silver beast. The greatboar bellowed again, a deeper, strangled noise, as it slowed, then stopped. It didn’t stop so much as cease motion, Ahriman realized, frozen in mid-charge.
He watched the greatboar’s bristles flake away like narrow, black snow. Armor scales fell off as the great sides thinned and sagged inwards across crumpling ribs. The greatboar’s face slipped loose, rheum pouring from eyes and nostrils. Within moments, a rotted corpse hung in the air, still in the midst of a thunderous charge, as the sand below crackled and darkened.
Meschia and Meschiane dropped their hands. Released, the greatboar staggered a few more steps on sheer momentum before collapsing into a welter of bones, skin and rotted tissue. The spiral tusks clattered together atop the oozing mess. The greatboar’s gleaming, roseate decay mirrored the couple’s silvered perfection.
Together, the humans turned to stare across the beach into the leaves where Ahriman crouched. They would make chimes from his bones before he ever got near them. “Message understood,” he whispered in a soft, sick voice. Ahriman slid back into the safety of the tubers, glad of the anonymous grasp of the wild tendrils.
Ahriman sat in a doorway and played his manbone quena, fingering his way through a disjointed melancholy medley. The hollow, crisp smell of bone washed like comfort over his tongue.
He had fled to the end of Kikitagruk Port farthest from where the greatboar died. Like all of his kind, he was fast, clever and very capable, but Ahriman had no idea how to contest with someone who commanded the very speed of time. He was glad he had not attacked the humans at the landing grid.
“It was a parlor trick.” Port spoke within the raindrops falling in the darkness outside. Sheets of water danced together, stretched transparent flags that rippled with Port’s voice in the pale light glowing from behind Ahriman’s back. The water’s susurration gave Port an unaccustomed lilt. “They manipulated local tauons, draining needed energy from the sand around the greatboar’s paws.”
Ahriman paused his playing, licked the rain’s slick, sweet scent from the air. “Then their parlor is greater than ours.”
The rain stuttered, pulled itself into more words. “Afraid you have met your match?”
Ahriman drew a breath, held it. His folded skin rippled, ready to morph defensively. “My match?”
“You are strong, clever and dangerous. They have your qualities, multiplied. But you are no more human than that greatboar on the beach.”
“I did not realize you knew.” Ahriman relaxed his skin, wondering how he hoped to fight Port if it had ever come to that.
“I have always known,” whispered Port. “What did it matter? But you are also no less human than they. I know that, too.”
Ahriman fingered his manbone quena, staring out into the temperate rain. Port twisted the falling water into ribbons and flags, fleeting shapes that climbed the ladders of their brother drops. Ahriman felt a new taste on his tongue, one that rose from within him. It was a taste he had not known since he was a spawnling.
The taste of his own fear.
Port’s liquid ribbons gelled again into words. “Will you climb back into the sky, then, and leave me alone at their mercy?”
Ahriman laid the carved femur down to set his hands upon his knees.
“I am afraid.” The words echoed within him, an admission tantamount to suicide among his kind. His species were too moral to kill mere criminals or mortal enemies, but they banished cowards from the gene pool with reflexive ease. He could not run away in fear. It was beyond his means.
Port whispered from the dark. “To be afraid is to be human. They had no reason to stay here, once they lost their fear.”
Ahriman knew a thousand definitions of humanity. Genetic signatures, artistic styles, linguistic groupings, superluminal engineering trends, specific scent clusters of ragged carnivore breath. He had seen humanity capering across a million generations of broadcast transmission, alien but beautiful to him from first to last. In studying and admiring the obscure race of man, he became a scholar of the trivial, the mordantly irrelevant. Ahriman was unable to see fear in what he admired.
“I have never thought of humans as fearful.”
Port twisted rainfall into a swarm of transparent aerial eels. “A human lays him down to sleep, fearing the new day might never dawn. A human kisses a sleeping child, fearing she has birthed a monster. A human climbs to the stars, fearing they will be burnt to ashes flying too close to the sun.”
Ahriman was afraid too, afraid of waste and pain and the ending of purpose. Most of all he was afraid of fear. He remembered the greatboar, squirming out a lifetime in a span of seconds. “Meschia and Meschiane fear nothing.”
“This is why they no longer need this world,” whispered Port, its voice nearly lost in the thrumming of the rain.
Ahriman walked in fear, his steps trembling. Fear, he discovered, was a grand elaboration of uncertainty. What had once been an academic sort of emotion, passing anxiety at worst, cloaked him like the dark of the spawning nest. He was surprised to learn fear also fed the sparks of hope.
“What do you want to do?” he asked Port.
The night’s rain had stopped, ceramic roads steaming in the morning sun. Port’s voice echoed from myriad puddles and rills of runoff.
“I do not want to be shut down. I fear they will come to my seat of reason and override me.” Port paused. “Meschia and Meschiane spent the night sitting on the landing grid by the ocean.”
“I thought you could only use visual observation?”
“I can identify their blank spot in my surveillance,” said Port with a liquid asperity.
Ahriman considered the humans and their power. “We could attempt to destroy them, but I fear the greatboar’s fate.”
The puddles rippled with gentle silver laughter. “Did you not fear to see the sun return as well?”
“Planetary rotation is scarcely an article of faith.” Ahriman grimaced. “Nonetheless, I did welcome the dawn.”
“This from you, hatched from an egg buried in mud. You are becoming human, my friend.”
In all their years together, Port had never called him ‘friend.’ It was a human concept, one Ahriman understood the way he understood lactation or equity exchanges — a historical abstraction of varying significance to his cultural studies. In the pellucid morning light, the idea seemed much more real. “Does friendship arise from fear?”
“Are you afraid of being alone?”
“Perhaps.” He feared being afraid. Ahriman raised the manbone quena to his lips, fingered his way through a simple exercise of scales. It brought him closer to a primitive past he seemed drawn into recreating.
The primitive past of another race.
Port sloshed at his feet as he walked, silvery words echoing in time to Ahriman’s steps. “If they choose to move against me, my usual defenses will not work against them. That is deep in my programming. I could send monsters of Pacjife water to them, or swarm them with my nightwalkers, but regardless we cannot defeat Meschia and Meschiane. And even if we did somehow prevail, other humans would come. They do not fear us, or anything else. They have already defeated us.”
Ahriman put the quena down. “I have an idea…friend.”
Meschia and Meschiane paced about the great plaza near the center of Kikitagruk Port. Captive, a massive arboriform tuber dominated the ceramic paving. Its flat, waxy leaves seemed lost without the company of a surrounding forest. The silver man and woman stepped in slow time, studying the ground before them with exaggerated care.
Ahriman watched from the edge of the plaza. He was certain the humans knew he was there, but they did not bother to acknowledge him. He licked the air with his tongue, drawing in vague, cool odors of drying tiles and a hint of jungle from the tuber. The scents of home, he realized. His home.
Port whispered out of the air. “They search for my override accesses. They must have completed their surveys. Perhaps a gentle tune on your flute. We want to peacefully capture their attention.”
Ahriman raised the manbone quena to his lips. He played a slow, rising air, a tune from the infancy of human civilization that folded in on itself with a structure as natural as waves that washed the shore. It eased his churning sense of fear.
Meschia and Meschiane stopped their pacing, heads turning to look at Ahriman.
Ahriman stood at the edge of the plaza, still playing. He wondered what to do next. Behind him, the whispering patter of the nightwalkers drew close. Animals collected around his feet, walking on two legs and four. Some carried young in slings woven of tuber root fibers, while others assisted the old and crippled. There were hundreds of them, of at least a dozen species. They ranged from the size of Ahriman’s fist to some as tall as his waist. The nightwalkers assembled around him along the edge of the plaza, drawn by the music of the manbone quena and whatever messages Port placed in their tiny minds.
With a rising chitter, the animals parted for a man of water. The newcomer was Pacjife foam spun to polymer, motivated by Port’s hidden microfluidic tech. Ahriman’s tongue scented iodine and brine and the death of small marine animals stranded at the feet of Port’s avatar.
“We are here.” Port’s words echoed around the plaza from the leaves of the lone tuber, the skin of the watery avatar, from puddles and walls and doorways and out of the air itself. Port used all of its voices at once, not loud, but everywhere, as if the planet itself had come to plead.
Ahriman played his quena, the tune cycling back on itself to unfold again beneath Port’s thunderous whisper. He tried to wrap Meschia and Meschiane in the history of their race.
“And so?” they asked in their twinned voices, flat, crisp and clear, abstracted tones in sharp contrast to Port’s rich, organic speech.
Port’s manifold voice circled echoed in its rounds before settling into the slow rhythms of the watery avatar. “We are your children. You no longer need this world, but it sustains us. We fear that you will plow us under. We ask for leave to abide in the garden that was once your home.”
The nightwalkers whispered agreement.
The humans stared. “Why should we grant you this? You are a tired automaton and a grave-robbing reptile, breeding rats in the dotage of our world.”
Ahriman let the tune trail off naturally, pulled the quena away from his lips. He tasted the smells of home — the gentle sweat of his own fear, the seawater odors of Port’s avatar, the scent of half a thousand small bodies come to stand proxy for the green land around Kikitagruk Port. Ahriman sought for some logic to break through the barriers of human perfection, to save his friend.
“You live between the stars. You have no use for this or any other world. What do you care?”
The silver mouths moved together, two people speaking as one. “Earth is the house of our fathers and the cradle of our race. We have come to finally lay our old home to rest.”
“Yesterday you said you were moving onward,” Ahriman whispered. “But why lay Earth to rest? It has again become a cradle.”
“It is fitting.” They hesitated, before Meschiane continued alone, “Humanity passes toward a different state. Earth will be our monument.”
Ahriman pressed his point. “All the more reason to glory in new generations of life here in the nursery of your race. The philosophers of my race claim life extends the cosmos.”
The humans exchanged their blank stare again. “We share that idea.”
“We stand here for life.” Ahriman said, “Human tradition claims love is with those who fear, and righteousness with their children.”
“And we are afraid,” added Port. The watery avatar circled its arms wide, including Port, Ahriman and the nightwalkers. “We cherish the fear that drove you toward greatness, before you found that greatness and flew away unafraid. From fear comes hope, for the better. From hope comes love, a belief in the best. Because we are afraid, we love our world.”
Port’s watery avatar lurched forward, as if to embrace the humans. Meschia and Meschiane raised their arms as they had done on the beach.
“No!” shouted Ahriman. It was only an avatar, but they were very close to Port’s seat of reason, to its overrides. Too close, too dangerous. He feared for his friend, he feared for himself.
The avatar slowed to a halt, as the boar had done, ceramic paving crackling to dust beneath its feet. Ahriman watched the water roil, turning to a mass of superheated steam trapped within the confines of the shape Port had used. Water dripped to the dusty hole that grew wider beneath. Ahriman was certain they meant to drown Port in its own waters.
“No,” he screamed, “not my friend.” His fear boiled away to deadly rage. Ahriman’s skin flowed, scales flexing and hardening as his skeletal linkages stretched. He absorbed mass from the pavement beneath his feet, from the crackling air around him. The manbone quena in his hand shattered and vanished into his transformation, fragments of ancient humanity taken up into his fighting form.
The humans stared at him with their depthless, blank eyes. Ahriman’s tail whipped behind him, his claws slipped in and out of their pads as he stretched to almost three meters in height.
Ahriman knew they could kill him in a moment, as they were killing the avatar. He no longer cared. “You will not drown my friend. You left Port behind. Port has cared for its corner of your Earth, cared for the small creatures that scuttled from the forests to take your places.” One great, clawed foot stamped into the pavement, shattering a ceramic paving block to send splinters flying into the panicked nightwalkers. “Port has been a faithful servant, and deserves better.”
“Or what?” asked Meschiane. “Otherwise you will kill us?”
“I do not threaten,” Ahriman roared, his breath hot with the inner fires of his new form. This was not right, this was not their plan. He grabbed a doubled handful of splintered pavement and crushed it to marble, then threw it skyward, launching his anger with it. As the avatar quivered, roiling steam above the widening hole in the pavement, Ahriman and the humans watched the glowing marble ball arc high toward the horizon.
Ahriman opened himself again to fear, reversed his defenses. His body folded in on itself, shedding mass in the form of lumpy armored plates and cracked scales. He realized his transformation back to the human form resembled the death of the greatboar. The nightwalkers cowered nearby, refusing to flee. Their chittering rose to a new height as his fighting body collapsed.
Ahriman folded his skin to robes again, flipping them over his scales. He stood among the abandoned rubble of his monstrous transformation as the nightwalkers crowded in around him, plucking at his robes. “I fear for my friend,” he said simply. “And I call upon your humanity.”
The humans stirred, alien emotions flickering across their faces. Their air of certitude leached away. The watery avatar suddenly began to move again, weaving slowly away from the gaping hole, trailing clouds of steam.
Ahriman walked past the avatar across the shattered plaza. The nightwalkers trailed him as he approached the silent couple. “Go to your fate among the stars. Leave a living monument here. If you ever return, come see what your children have become.”
Meschiane folded her arms across her chest, Meschia folding his in time with her. They spoke together. “We go. You will treat Earth’s children well.” They leapt straight up into the sky
Pacjife water splashed behind Ahriman as Port’s avatar collapsed amid startled squeaks and tinny curses from the nightwalkers already scattering away. Ahriman stood alone near the middle of the plaza, facing the arboriform tuber.
“I now have control over all aspects of planetary maintenance,” whispered Port from the leaves. “Magnetosphere, weather, seabed subduction, they gave us everything. There is much to do.”
Ahriman stared up at two dots in the sky. “I forgot to ask where they were going.”
“At least you have come home, my friend.”
This month Jay Lake continues his reign as Featured Author with the award winning, far future, “The Courtesy of Guests.” Kyri Freeman revisits her familiar American Civil War battlefield in the haunting tale of “The Path,” while j.d. paradise tells a bittersweet story in “The Girl with the Butterfly Tongue.” Jack London provides our classic for May with “A Thousand Deaths.
Lee Battersby, our erstwhile reviewer, fresh from winning the Ditmar award for Best New Talent at this year’s Australian SF National Convention, looks at the small press offerings on show there.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue.