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The Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad ebook is now on sale for $2.99 | Tor/Forge Blog

Pick up the ebook edition of Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad, on sale for only 2.99 until June 2nd.

Source: The Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad ebook is now on sale for $2.99 | Tor/Forge Blog

Pick up the ebook edition of Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad, on sale for only 2.99. This offer will only last for a limited time, so order your copy today!

About Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad: The action-packed alternate fantasy returns for a new generation, featuring fiction from #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin, Michael Cassutt, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner, and more—plus two completely new stories from Kevin Andrew Murphy and bestselling author Carrie Vaughn.

Forty years after the Wild Card Virus’s release, the World Health Organization decides it’s time to take a delegation of Aces, Jokers, politicians, and journalists on a fact-finding mission to learn how other countries are dealing with the virus that reshaped humanity. Leading the team is Gregg Hartmann, a senator with presidential aspirations and a dangerous ace up his sleeve. Joining him is a menagerie of some of the series’ best and most popular Wild Cards, including Dr. Tachyon, aces Peregrine and Golden Boy, and jokers Chrysalis, Troll, and Father Squid.

From the jungles of Haiti and Peru to the tumultuous political climate of Egypt, from a monastery in Japan to the streets of the most glamorous cities of Europe, the Wild Cards are in for an eye-opening trip. While some are worshiped as actual gods, those possessing the most extreme mutations are treated with a contempt that’s all too familiar to the delegates from Jokertown. New alliances will be formed, new enemies will be made, and some actions will fulfill centuries-old prophecies that make ripples throughout the future of the Wild Cards universe.

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The Color of Paradox | Tor.com

The Color of Paradox  by A.M. Dellamonica

Source: The Color of Paradox | Tor.com

“The Color of Paradox,” by A.M. Dellamonica, is a science fiction story about one of a series of time travelers sent back to the past in order to buy more time for the human race, which in the future is on the verge of extinction.

Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The Color of Paradox” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]

 

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.

The last thing they did, before sending me into the past, was shove me to the end of the world.

The Project Mayfly nurse waited as I raised myself onto a wicker table with a surface made of tightly-strung hide, a grid that put me in mind of a tennis racket. The squares of string pressed against the thin fabric of my hospital gown.

As I climbed on, I couldn’t help noticing the drain in the floor. It was a hand’s width away from the letters scratched into the concrete: “16—Hungry.”

There were marks on the wall, too, across from the metal staircase. A timeline, in yellow chalk, running from floor to ceiling, hashed at one-inch intervals. The year 1900 was scrawled at the bottom, the numbers mashed short by the floor. A foot and change upward from that, 1914 and 1916. The nines had a familiar, slightly twisted look to them. They were at once readable and yet not quite perfectly formed. So were the nines in the other chalk digits that followed: 1937 and the current year, 1946.

The nurse dodged the hand I’d put out, just for a last friendly pat, you know. She covered me, toes to chin, with a lead blanket.

“When do you tell me my mission?”

“Willie will send word when you’ve gotten there safe and sound.” The Major’s words came from a speaker in the ceiling. “Good luck, son.”

“Eyes wide, now.” The nurse slid a hand into the seven tons of steel bolted to the ceiling above me, drawing out a pair of rubber cups on a long, noodle-pallid cord. I complied, distorting my view of the chalk timeline on the wall across from me; she popped the cups on my eyes, like contact lenses except they were so thick they braced my eyelids open.

“Bit of discomfort coming,” she said, patting the lead blanket.

Blinded, I felt the vibration of the machine as it lowered from the ceiling, Dr. Frankenstein’s version of an optician’s examining rig. It settled on my body like an automobile laid atop the blanket. I heard clips. The flesh of my rump pressed the rawhide grid below.

“It’s wrong on my nose,” I protested: cold steel was pressing down on my face with bruising force.

“Try to breathe.”

“My nose,” I said again.

All their warnings ran through my mind: If you lied about ever being to Seattle you will die. If there is any metal in your body, you will die.

Who would lie about visiting Seattle?

This is a one-way mission.

Knowing I would survive the press was hardly a comfort.

Seven tons of steel were clamped around me and my nose was going to break, and after telling me to breathe, just breathe, that nurse—she smelled of rosewater, I’ll never forget it—was sliding some kind of leather bit into my mouth. It was enough to make me wish I was at the front, face-to-barrel with one of the new Russo-German repeating rifles.

I heard her retreat to the staircase, locking the lead door. I counted to thirty. What felt like a year passed.

Then I saw the death of the world.

It was hot, but there was no fire. My crushed nose picked up a smell straight out of Dante’s Inferno: charnel and brimstone. I rose above the great American city, above Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Higher, higher.

But something was wrong with the color of the future, seven weeks out. Seattle, below, the sky above, even the air around me . . . it was all splashed with color I’d never seen before. Everything was off the accepted painter’s wheel of red, blue, yellow.

The cries of thousands of living things, dying in agony, merged with my own.

My mind, confronted with the impossible, revolted. Pinned, gagged, and clamped in place, unable to look away, I screamed as the timepress thrust me against the end of everything, as I bounced off that imminent stained future and ricocheted into the past.

A sproing, a sense of strings beneath me popping. I dropped—but struck something soft before I realized I was falling.

It was dark, everything hurt, and I was still screaming.

I fought the howls, eventually compressing them to whimpers, then a voiceless suctioning of air. The cups over my eyes were gone, but I seriously doubted whether I would ever open my eyes again.

. . . color that color that sound that smell . . .

When I did, I saw a square of light above, the doorway at the top of the staircase.

Was I still in the project basement? All the equipment was gone. I lay on a mattress in the middle of the floor, placed where the gurney had been. A bare light bulb hung overhead; the staircase that led up and out was wood, rather than steel, and my chalk timeline, naturally, was gone.

Just within reach was a milk jug full of water. A bucket waited in the corner.

A woman—not the nurse from before—waited at the top of the staircase. She had a blanket in one hand and a pistol in the other.

“How do you feel?” She sounded wary.

I covered my groin with one hand and felt for the bit in my mouth. The handful of leather was almost too much to lift; I was that weak.

I prodded my nose: not quite broken.

She waited.

What I managed was a thready: “Skinned. I feel skinned.”

She nodded, pocketed the weapon, and brought the sheet, restoring my modesty with a brisk snap of linen. Everything it touched ached, as if bruised.

Vanishing upstairs, she returned with a pillow, a proper blanket, and a tray containing broth, aspirin, and a tiny soda biscuit.

“Keep your hands under the bedclothes,” she ordered, feeding me extremely small sips of the soup.

“Who are you?”

“Constance Wills. Willie.”

“You’re Agent Sixteen?”

“Thought I was a chap?” she said. “The Major loves his little joke.”

The Major had told me they’d pressed Willie in 1937, seven weeks before the first time the world ended. Somehow she’d made it back to 1916 and pushed the devastation off nine years. If not for her, I’d have died at age nine.

She was the first of us to survive the timepress.

“Do whatever Willie says,” they told me. “You’ll be fine.”

It was a bit of a dirty trick to be expecting some war-ragged captain and to find, instead, a girl with cornflower eyes, hair the color of a strawberry roan, and delicate, freckled hands. Her face was stronger than I liked, her gaze more direct. No lipstick, either. Pity. I like a girl who tries.

“I’m—” I began, and she dumped lukewarm soup in my mouth.

“I don’t want to know your name unless you make it.”

With the spoon caught between my teeth, I could hardly tell her how I knew I would survive.

 

It was days before my body agreed, and conceded to feeling as though I might not, as Willie expected, simply die.

I took what she gave me—pills, pale suggestions of food—and shivered on the mattress. The thing I’d seen raked at my dreams, even though I couldn’t properly recall that awful color, or the exact timbre of that chorus of screams.

I dreamed incomprehensible, awful things: men suckling the intestines of disembowelled soldiers, window glass turning to liquid and forcing itself into the ear canals of soft, white-fleeced sheep, a robed worker running a girl’s body through an industrial steam press.

The dark and quiet of the basement were soothing. The walls were close and plain, offering tight, restful concrete horizons. The crawl to the bucket in the corner was as much as I could manage physically, and as far as I wanted to go.

Willie nursed but otherwise ignored me until I finally got bored enough to ask for a newspaper. She brought me the Post-Intelligencer and there was almost more information in it than I could bear: I threw it aside after two pages of Volstead Act enforcement and reminisces of a snowstorm the previous year.

The next day she brought the paper again and the world was easier to face. That afternoon, I was allowed a little more solid food: two bites of chicken and a mash of turnips.

“The paper,” I said. “It’s current?”

She nodded.

“I’ve just had my appendix out—at home, I mean.”

“They press us down into the precise moment when our younger selves are under anesthetic. Doctor Stefoff’s theory is it’s easier to make the transition that way.”

I ran a finger over a week’s worth of beard. “I’d like to shave.”

“You’re not ready.”

“I wish to be presentable.”

“Nobody cares what you look like.”

I tried to summon a shred of charm. “You should be nicer to me, Willie. I’m here to save the world, remember?”

“You can have a mirror and a razor when you come up to your room.” With that, she vanished upstairs.

That gave me pause. The prospect of climbing that staircase filled me with dread, like a child mandated to visit to a malevolent old relative. Some dying grandfather, furious as his body failed, refusing to know his time was coming. Clawlike hands and the smell of dying . . .

Up in the house was sunshine and fresh air and the inevitability of the end.

It took me another day to muster the nerve. I was rubber-legged and sweating before I was halfway up the staircase.

“See here, old man. This isn’t physical.” To prove it to myself, I marched down to the bottom again, one two, one two, setting a slow but steady pace and swearing I wouldn’t break it. When my feet hit the concrete floor I turned on my heel—about face, good soldier!—and maintained my march to the top.

I was trembling with nausea when I reached the door, but I nevertheless forced myself through.

The door led into a closet, filled with men’s clothes. Beyond it was a plain, old-fashioned and distinctly masculine bedroom, with blue bed covers and uninspired wooden furniture. Even that, for a moment, was almost too much color.

A shaving kit taunted me. The water was fresh, steaming; Willie must have heard me dithering on the stair.

“You can do this,” I told myself.

The face in the mirror was thinner, and the bruising on the bridge of my nose was smeared, on one side, into a black eye. I’ve always been on the pale side; now I looked positively bloodless. My hair had turned a brittle white-blond, except at the roots.

I had been convinced I’d see it—the end, that horrible color—brimming from the sockets of my eyes.

I shaved, slowly, taking care not to cut myself. The sight of blood would have sent me quailing back to my sickbed. Putting on a suit from the closet that just about fit, I listened at the door.

Women’s voices and a mutter of teacups: Willie had company. No matter. She couldn’t keep me from my mission forever.

I found her in the kitchen with an older woman and a sickly looking Negro man, the three of them sharing a breakfast of eggs and bacon. The smell was so rich my stomach turned.

The older woman looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Who’s this fellow?”

“My brother.” Willie swallowed a slimy, soft-boiled egg. “Jules Wills the Third.”

The woman turned out to be a housekeeper and cook. Her name was Mrs. Farmer and she seemed a gem: motherly, warm, efficient, everything a matron should be. The old man, Rufus, was nominally a servant. This polite bit of fiction allowed him to live, despite his race, with three other gents Willie was keeping upstairs. I was given to understand she ran a boarding house for convalescent bachelors.

I endured an interminable stretch of pointless chitchat about the stock market and a recent State of the Union address and whether the carrots at market had been overpriced that day. Finally Rufus caned his way out into the hall and Mrs. Farmer took away the dishes, with their intermingling, overstrong smells.

“I could just about do a cup of tea,” I said. “Be a love, will you?”

Willie affected not to have heard, opening a small journal and paging through the opening leaves.

“Why am I appointed your brother?”

“Because you’re a flirt, and I wish to avoid trouble.”

“You said you’d be nicer to me if I survived.”

“Who says you have?”

That took the wind out of my sails. “My strength is—I am recovering.”

“You might yet run mad and cut your throat,” she said, with no apparent interest. “Or need to be shot.”

“You’re not as cold as all that, are you?”

“Would you like to test me?”

I was too irked to tell her that I’d seen proof I was going to make it. “When do I receive my orders?”

She took up a pen, turned to a blank page in her journal, and spoke as she wrote: “February 7th, 1920. My brother Jules has arrived from England and met with a mishap: he’s been robbed of his luggage and caught a fever. I have been nursing him ’round the clock—”

“Ha!” said I.

“—and it begins to look as though he may pull through. Since I saw him last, six years ago, Julie has grown into a reasonably handsome fellow—”

“Faint praise.”

“He has blue eyes, like mine, and hair so dark it might be taken for black.”

“It’s not dark now.”

“It’ll grow in.” Willie continued to narrate: “He has had his appendix removed in childhood and—” She paused. “Other scars?”

“If you’d nursed me as attentively as you claim, you’d know.”

“The project must know which one you are if they’re to send proper identification.”

Which one you are. It raised the hairs on my arms.

“Shall I be forced to describe your personality?” Withering tone there: whatever she said would be unflattering.

“It’s the bottom of my foot. I stepped on a fishing lure.”

She finished the sentence in silence and then added, “Though dear Julie isn’t out of danger yet—”

“I’m not wild about this pet name you’ve given me.”

“—he is restless and eager to be of use.” She looked across the table. “They’ll send something along presently.”

“Just like that?”

We could press things back, never forward. Willie would complete her girlish diary and shelve it somewhere safe: her notes would wait until they reached the project, twenty-six years on, for the Major to read about my arrival.

“What is it?” Willie said.

“I won’t see 1946 again until I’m in my forties.” The thought was staggering.

She frowned. “Your package will arrive downstairs. When you go, bring up the sheets.”

“Would you have me dust while I’m at it? Arrange some flowers?”

“I’m sure, Julie, that I don’t care what you do.” She jotted one last sentence, snapped the journal shut when I tried to see it, and left me tealess and suddenly chilled in the kitchen.

She told them I was insubordinate. My stomach cramped and I was, all at once, brimming with fury. I had an urge to chase her out of the room, to smash her head against the banister until her blood ran between my knuckles. To lick, drink . . . I touched my tongue to the notch between my clenched index and middle fingers, imagining salt, and saw a flash of color . . .

It passed, leaving me dry-mouthed and appalled at myself.

You may yet run mad.

“Maybe Julie isn’t out of the woods yet,” I conceded, and escaped downstairs.

The basement had a sour smell I associated with an animal’s den—my smell, I realized, from days of sickness—overlaid by lubricated machinery. I gathered the bedding, wadding everything into the top sheet, and walked it up to the room with the wardrobe. The stairs were easier the second time.

Between the sheets and the mattress was a stiff black tarpaulin. I folded that, too, finding the mattress beneath pristine, and carried it up.

Returning once more, I strained to tilt the mattress off the floor. There was no drain there yet. The message scratched into the floor, “16—Hungry,” seemed fainter than it had been, a week ago in the future, when I was climbing aboard the gurney.

I let the mattress fall back into position and paced the room. There was nothing down here but cool air, bare walls, soothing quiet. By my time, there would be a trapdoor under the staircase, access to a lower basement. For now, though, the floor was intact: this was the bottom of the hole.

I had never been monstrous. The flash of bloodlust was tied to what I’d seen, seven weeks into my future, at the end of the world. I’d been infected. Some rot was blooming within my mind or soul.

What could I do but fight it?

I should go out, take in a little air, feel the rain on my face. Or eat—Mrs. Farmer would fix me tea, I’d wager, even if Willie had no idea of proper female behavior. I could go upstairs and meet the convalescents.

Instead I sat on the steps in the blessed dim and quiet, trying to still my thoughts.

After about an hour a satchel appeared in mid-air, at waist-height—the height of the gurney. It was scorched. A scrap of strung hide was burning into its bottom.

It flopped onto the mattress, just as I had, and lay there, smoking. I thought of horse droppings, suddenly, steaming on frosty lawns.

Inside the satchel I found bundles of letters and a paper-wrapped package, tied in string and all neatly labelled, like an odd Christmas parcel. Names: mine, hers, someone named Robert Chambers and Kenneth Smith.

I opened a package with “Jules Wills III” on it, and found a wallet containing thirty dollars in American bills. A small fortune.

The brown paper the wallet came in had been inked with facts and figures I was meant to memorize: my birthday in 1898, Willie’s in 1895, our parents’ names. There were notes outlining a sketchy little cover story about growing up on an estate in the West Dorset countryside, and the circumstances that had brought us to America.

The tale was Willie had married a man who’d brought her here. He’d died in the Great War and so she’d set up the convalescent home. Our parents had sent me out to check on her.

“Is the post in?” Her voice at the top of the stair made me jump. “I smell smoke.”

I coughed, stood, passed it up. Her eyes travelled over the basement—she saw the soot-mark from the bag on her virginal mattress and I realized I wasn’t meant to have brought up the tarpaulin.

“You put the mattress there?” I asked suddenly. “You’d have fallen onto—”

I gestured at the floor and wondered if she’d broken anything when she hit the concrete.

She extracted the bundle with her name on it and passed me a bunch of letters. “From Father,” she said. I could sense she was debating her answer.

“Please, Willie. I don’t mean to be beastly. None of this is what I expected.”

She shook her head. “There was no mattress. How could there be?”

“It’s only a yard, I suppose. Were you hurt?”

“Grady and Biggs broke my fall.”

“Who?”

“Agents fourteen and fifteen. What remained of them, anyway.”

I’d have expected her to leave after that grisly revelation—Willie seemed to love a good exit line—but instead she gave my shoulder an absent pat and started opening her letters. “The brown sheets speak plainly—they’re meant to be burned. The letters we can keep. They don’t say anything revealing.”

“Aren’t they afraid we’ll miss one of the brown sheets—fail to burn it?”

“They don’t last. The ink fades and the paper tatters within a month or two.”

The letters from my false parents ordered me to mind my sister, mind my health, and remember the considerable spiritual benefits of prayer and clean living. In other words: obey my C.O., stay physically fit, and try to avoid going mad.

The note from ‘Father’ was written in the Major’s hand. He wanted me to set up a bank account and asked me to make some modest but specific investments. Cash would be provided for further deposits. There was also an allowance: this much for clothes and kit, that much for expenses as I ‘made myself useful.’

Useful. The letter hinted that I might indulge a bit of a carousing and gambling habit, by way of ingratiating myself with local gossips and crooks. This would be funded as long as I wrote home about whatever they told me.

A license to drink and gamble. There were worse things.

“Mother,” whose handwriting I didn’t recognize, said I should see Willie’s doctor and take iodine pills—these they’d enclosed. I was to refrain from smoking while I recovered.

The final wrapped lump with my name on it felt like a book.

I untied the string and then, in the process of extracting the biography of a reporter I’d long admired, I tore the brown paper in half.

My eyes drifted to the mattress in the middle of the floor and I pictured Willie suddenly: young, sick . . .

(helpless, bleeding, delicious)

. . . and dropped on concrete, onto the corpses of two previous agents. Using something—who knew what?—to scratch those words into the floor.

“16—Hungry.” Begging the future for food, because she was too weak to fetch any for herself.

I shook the image away and held two sides of the page together to see what it was I’d been sent back to do.

“Bloody hell!”

Willie looked down, offering an especially masterful performance of her incurious stare. I passed her the torn pages.

She held them up and scanned. “Paperboy with the Seattle Union Record. Name of Peter Rupert, lives near Jackson Street. Ruin, spoil, or if necessary kill.”

“Bloody Peter Rupert.” I waved the biography at her.

“You know him?”

“Don’t you?”

She shook her head. “He wasn’t—in my 1937, he must not have had any significance.”

“Well in my 1937 he’s a bloody hero. Cottoned onto an attack Japan was planning on Hawaii, on the U.S. Fleet. He broke the story and stopped the whole—”

“You have to forget about that,” she said. “It’s going to change. Whatever you remember is already gone. It will all unfold differently after you—”

“Ruin a nine-year-old boy?”

“Or kill him.”

“What kind of a monster are you?”

“If you are so certain that ruining someone is better than killing them outright, you’ve had something of a soft go at life.”

“I’m not killing a child.”

“All right.” She ignored my distress, looking over the book but far off, deep in thought. “If he were disfigured, people mightn’t talk to him. Or if his voice were damaged—did he file dispatches by telephone?”

“Disfigure or cripple a nine-year-old,” I said. “A hero. He reported on the Russian counter-revolution. I dreamed about being like him.”

“No doubt that’s why you were sent. Know thy—”

“Enemy?”

“Target.”

“I have no intention of doing my target the slightest harm,” I said.

She shrugged, passed the book back, and left me in the basement to fume.

Anger drove me out of the house. I went and set up the bank account and investments, paying lip service to the idea of military obedience. I bought myself a new suit and an umbrella. Everyone looked young and hopeful. They were dressed in clothes that reminded me of my childhood. There were almost no automobiles on the streets: trolleys, carts, and pedestrians were everywhere.

In the basement, at Willie’s, I might still have been in 1946. Now it sank in: I was living in my own past.

Up ahead, just decades away, the world was turning to something far worse than ash. Peter Rupert would do something to bring that day closer.

But it was probably one action of his, wasn’t it? Probably the Japan scoop. One single story of the hundreds he filed.

I found myself a street corner that smelled of washed earth—not of horse, not of smoke or fuel. I stood there, snug under my umbrella, and watched the rain pour down as I formulated a plan.

 

“What if I got close to him?” I said to Willie that night. “The Project must know more about whatever Peter does to . . .”

“To bring on the Souring?” She sat in a rocking chair in the parlor, knitting in front of the fire, playing at being an ordinary woman.

My mouth went dry. “The—”

“Sorry—that’s what I call it. What we saw.”

I swallowed. “It’s apt.”

“It’s useful,” she said. “I use it in the journals. I’ve cultivated a conceit that losing my husband made me a bit odd.”

“Ramblings of a daft young widow?”

She nodded. “Just in case someone unauthorized gets a look.”

“Whatever Peter does to bring on your Souring,” I said, “it’s bound to be one story. They chose him because he’s key, am I right? Because he’s a simple target?”

“So?”

“The Project must tell me which story. If he sees me as a friend, an older brother, or even a father figure—his own father died in the flu epidemic—”

She flinched, for some reason.

“It’s why he’s working as a paperboy, to support his mother. In any case, I’ll keep him off that one story.”

“You’re proposing to chum around with him for years?”

“Why not? I’ll make myself useful meanwhile: keep investing money, reporting gossip, maybe help dig out the next basement . . .”

“Jules.”

“. . . I’d need someone to explain the engineering to me, obviously. How does one secretly dig a second basement in a house that already exists?”

“Jules.”

“I needn’t live here in the house if you don’t want me underfoot.”

She pulled herself upright in her chair, sitting as prim and proper as a schoolteacher. I imagined I heard her sleeve tearing, and thought about running my tongue over the freckles on her arm: how far did they go? She folded her hands, seemed to fight an urge to wring them, and waited for me to run down.

“What is it?”

She said. “The timepress uses a radiant form of energy. It’s what makes us so sick. They told you that, didn’t they?”

“I’m not going to relapse on you. I live, I know it.”

She didn’t smile. “Chances are you will die of cancer within the year.”

“Chances?”

“Rufus has survived almost fifteen months, but…”

She meant the sickly Negro man.

“You have no great span of time in which to befriend Peter Rupert. You can’t jolly him along for a decade and hope to break his leg before he leaves for Japan. You—”

I was across the room before I knew it, grabbing at her, tipping the rocking chair. We ended on the floor, my hand wrapped around her jaw, and again that red desire swam up. To smash, to smash, to taste of her blood on my knuckles.

“You’re. Not. Dead,” I snarled. “It’s been years and you’re not dead.”

A little flicker. Fear? I am ashamed to admit I hoped so. I needed to see something beyond pity or contempt in her.

“Go ahead, then,” she said, and I realized my other hand was resting atop—was squeezing—one of her strangely firm breasts.

Trying to buy her life? Well, she’d all but opened her legs now: I gave her blouse a swift tear as my defeated sanity—the despairing, quashed part of me that knew better—protested.

I found: a padded bodice, formed like a woman’s body.

I pushed it aside, exposing her belly…

…and found nothing but scars.

The slices had been pulled up and then stitched tight. Everything below her collarbones was purple and red, twisting lines of hashed-together tissue.

“About a week after I finished my mission.” Her words were distorted by the grip I had on her—she couldn’t really move her jaw. “I woke up with a terrible feeling. It wasn’t physical—I’d never felt so well.”

“Feeling?” I was staring at her torn-up body; I couldn’t look away.

“Panic, pure and simple. I went to a surgeon and paid him to cut away everything that made me a woman.”

I gagged, released her, and pushed myself back, back, until I was almost in the fireplace. I got entangled with her knitting bag and it came with me, my slippers trailing a half-knit Christmas stocking and strands of red and green wool.

Willie sat up. “This city is full of sweet, bright, talented boys, Jules.”

“But the future won’t have anyone, bright or otherwise, unless I fulfill my mission. Is that what you’re saying?”

She struggled to anchor her bodice over the ruin of flesh under her throat. Those empty scoops. Then she hunted on the carpet for the buttons I’d torn off her dress. She got to her feet, righted the chair, and peered out before creeping off into the house, holding her blouse shut.

I disentangled my feet from the red and green yarn, spilling Willie’s journal in the process. Snatching it up, I fled the house.

 

The Major had recommended a particular neighborhood speakeasy to me and it was there, with a whiskey in front of me, that I opened up the journal.

I suppose I expected to find an account, cleverly couched, of Willie’s earliest days. Or that first mission of hers.

Who did you ruin, spoil, or kill, Willie?

But that first journal was long since filled, I’m sure, filled and locked away, waiting for the project to discover its secrets. This one had only been on the go for a month or so.

It began with a brief account of the death of one of the gents upstairs, and a note to the effect that she was glad he’d got to see the Great Pyramid on ‘his recent business trip to Egypt.’

They had briefed me on that mission: Smitty had interfered with the mail in the Middle East, stealing correspondence and replacing it with false letters to a number of gentlemen in Jerusalem. This had eased tensions there and thereby delayed the onset of the second Great War until 1936.

All the sick men upstairs in the bedrooms. They’re not tenants, they’re time agents. They’ve served their purpose and now . . .

“What’re you doing, Mac?” A drunk nudged me, apparently hoping I’d stand him a round.

“Reading my sister’s diary,” I said, which got a general laugh.

Ruin, spoil, or kill. The thought crept in, despite my resolve to refuse the mission. Peter Rupert, the reporter, had terrible problems with drink.

I paged ahead, past an account of some Boeing engineer and his odd friendship with Rufus. Beyond that was the account of my arrival Willie had written, just days before. I checked that last line, the one I’d believed was her tale-telling about my intransigence.

She had written: “What’s best about him, so far, is that he’s stubborn.”

There was more about the engineer, and an entry saying someone named Valois had written with an address in France and a request that she forward his mail. He was settling down with a girl in Paris, for ‘however long he had.’

She’d got back to me in her final entry: “Julie has survived his first week in America. His spirits are in turmoil. Homesickness, I expect. Nothing out of the ordinary. He’s wonderfully strong. Father expects rather a lot from him, and he is mulling over how to make the family proud.”

I had one more shot of the bathtub whiskey, then paid for a flask to take away.

On the way back, I passed a school. It was late in the day; the children were gone.

On a whim, I went in and wandered the halls, waiting for someone to challenge me. Nobody did; nobody took notice of me at all.

I stepped into a classroom and found myself contemplating a long ruler and a piece of chalk. The smell of the chalk was like the bare cement walls of the project basement: dust and bone, calm, a scent of earth and eternity.

“Are you here to fill in for our art teacher?”

I turned. The man who’d addressed me was cut from the same pattern as my father: round, pink, affable. He had green eyes, emerald chips, bright and long of lash. His wedding ring was plain and a little too tight for his finger; the valise he clutched was well-worn.

“Veteran?” he said, and I nodded.

“There aren’t enough thanks in all the world, sir, for what you’ve done.”

“I accept pound notes,” I said.

His laugh was like Dad’s, too, a boom that came from the soles of his feet. “Principal’s at the end of the hall, on the left.”

 

I found Willie tucking her heavy tarpaulin back into place on the mattress in the basement. There was an ugly bruise around her mouth, but when she saw me, her lips twitched. Trying not to laugh?

“Sorry.” What else could I say?

“It’s nothing.”

I lifted the edge of the mattress so she could smooth the tarpaulin under. “What are you doing?”

“Preparing for the next one.” She handed me the sheet.

That should have been my cue to tell her it wouldn’t be necessary to send another man, that I’d take on the mission. But there would be someone else, wouldn’t there?

“Have you got my book, Julie?”

I passed the journal to her. “Lots about Boeing.”

“The airfield’s one reason we’re in Washington. A hint to an engineer here, a line on a blueprint there . . . the planes make an immense difference to how it all plays out.”

“Is that what you did—help make planes?”

“Rufus is the engineer,” she said. “Who would take plane-building notes from a dotty old widow?”

“So your mission: was it ‘ruin, spoil, or kill’ too?”

“Well.” Her voice was dry. “We are siblings.”

I took that as a yes.

She said: “You’ve thought it out, haven’t you?”

I showed her the flask. “Peter Rupert has a compulsion. If I start him drinking early, especially given the poisons they’re putting in alcohol right now . . .”

Willie nodded. “Might be kinder to shoot him.”

“Kinder for him? Or me?”

“You, of course.”

If he became a drunk as a youth, he might yet pull a less illustrious life together later. “It shouldn’t be easy.”

“That’s simply masochism.”

“You’re afraid it won’t work? That I’ll die before he’s—”

She gestured at the mattress. Meaning: if I failed, someone else would come and finish the job.

I took up my ruler and walked to the wall, drawing the line I’d seen there. Working slowly, I made notches at one-inch intervals, and wrote 1900, 1914, and 1916 at the appropriate heights. They looked just as I’d remembered. There’s an odd curl to my nines I never managed, quite, to amend.

I counted forward to 1937, the year they pressed Willie, and wrote an encircled “1” beside it.

“The first Souring?” she said.

“Yes.” I counted forward through the nine years she’d bought us, to my own time, and noted the second.

“They’re learning more with every press,” she said. “Rufus has been doing quite well.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t paying attention. The scent of the chalk had caught me again, along with the odd little miracle of the bright yellow line it made, here on the rough grey wall, and the residue left on my hand. It was the same feeling I’d had when talking to the old teacher, an almost painful awareness of . . . was it beauty?

“Sorry, what?” I said.

She wore, to my shock, a smile. “One of the effects of having been—what was your word? —skinned,” she said. “Little things shine out like that. It’s never the things that are meant to be attractive, I find, but—”

I gave in to the urge to put the chalk under my nose, like a cigar, and inhale. “It’s just that it’s so different. Different from the end.”

“Yes. Solid, somehow. Real. Food’s better too, once you can handle it.”

“Tonight, maybe,” I said, pocketing the chalk and leaving the ruler leaned up against the short stretch of the twentieth century, the scratched out record of the precious years we’d bought so far. “So, Willie, do you want to know my name yet?”

“When you’ve lived, Julie,” she said, and she meant something different by it this time. And what did it matter? I bent to help her with the sheet, smoothing out the mattress to catch the next wretched one of us, whenever he or she might land.

 

“The Color of Paradox” copyright © 2014 by A.M. Dellamonica

Art copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Alan Love

Source: http://www.tor.com/2014/06/25/the-color-of-paradox-am-dellamonica/

 

 

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Filed under 2017, science fiction

Dark Warm Heart | Tor.com

Source: Dark Warm Heart | Tor.com

“Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson is a horror story about a woman whose husband returns from the frozen Canadian North Territories, obsessed with texts he discovered there.

 

The bite mark was wine-red on anemic-white, crenellating Kristine’s bare shoulder. She moved the strap of her nightgown when Noel stumbled into the kitchen, drawn by the sizzle and clank of the frying pan, so he would be sure to see it.

“Morning,” she said, sliding the sausages onto a paper towel.

“Hey.” Noel stopped short, still scratching at the wiry hair up his belly. He frowned. “Did I do that?”

“No,” Kristine said dryly. She dabbed at the grease. “Somebody else. While you were gone I cheated with a…a hyena.”

Noel came closer, whispering one finger along the ruined skin. Shook his head. “Shit,” he said, wrapping her waist. “Désolé. I didn’t mean to.”

“Good,” Kristine said. She tipped her head back for a kiss. “I don’t mind it,” she decided, plucking at his hand. “See? We match.”

“Yes. Lucky.” Noel held up his broad hand, two of the fingers still scarred purple from frostbite. “What do you call it? An accent color?”

Kristine laughed, and gave him a small shove towards the white table. Noel sat down in his old spot, like he’d never left, while she doled out sausages and toast with margarine. The small kitchen was still crammed full with gleaming wedding gift appliances.

“So finally you had someone to laugh at your jokes?” Noel asked, sawing with his knife.

Kristine smiled. “What?”

“The hyena.”

“Hm. Yeah.” She watched Noel sniff at the sausage, like he’d been rescued off some island instead of from the YEG airport late last night. “And he always ate the leftovers.”

Noel laughed, warm like an electric blanket, and she wished she’d told him the night before. But there had been no space for words, just skin and sweat in a bed that had been too big for too many weeks, and she’d waited this long, hadn’t she?

“I’m going to start on the transcription today,” Noel said, chewing.

“Already?” Kristine asked. “You aren’t going to, I don’t know, warm up for a day? Relax?”

“It’s not so warm here either, Krissy.” He nodded towards the sliding door, half frosted over, and the pinwheeling flakes beyond it. “It’s snowing.”

“Warmer than your igloo in NWT,” Kristine suggested. “I have to run a few errands. Unless you wanted me to stay and help you. With, you know, the bilabial sounds.” She leaned forward and pressed both her lips against his. They felt dry.

“I didn’t sleep in an igloo,” Noel said when they broke, but grinning. “All right. I’ll wash up. Leave the plates.”

Kristine went to the pristine bathroom, which would not be pristine for long now that Noel was back. She’d almost missed seeing his bristles in the sink. She turned the shower on, hot. The mirror fogged fast. She retched a few times over the toilet, but nothing came up, so she stepped inside the shower. After, while the curling iron was heating up, she rummaged a tube of concealer out of her vanity drawer. She shook it as she eyed the bite mark, debating.

She put the concealer back. The mark was somehow like a checked box, a reminder that Noel was real and he was home and he loved her to death, and it was nothing like the cuts up her legs she’d hidden in high school.

When she passed through the kitchen, keys jangling in her fingers, Noel was already swallowed up between Bose headphones, the noise-cancelling kind. His face looked thin and sharp and his eyes were tracking across the laptop screen, left, right, left, right.

“Don’t work too hard,” Kristine said, once she’d tugged one of the headphones down.

“I would never,” Noel said. “Thank you for breakfast.”

He brushed crumbs off his lip before he kissed her good-bye, but the sausages were still sitting on the plate, uneaten. Kristine handed him a Tupperware container on her way out the door.

 

Her shoulder throbbed while she was getting cash from the ATM. It throbbed when she pushed through the Grade 5/6 portable doors to pick up the worksheet she’d forgotten to photocopy, it throbbed when she shivered in the meat section of Superstore, trying to remember if Noel liked minute steaks, and it throbbed when she returned home to find him still at the table with his face sickly awash in laptop light. He’d forgotten he cooked Sundays.

“Hey, Mister Linguist, have you even moved?” Kristine asked, opening the fridge freezer. Cold billowed out as she put the steaks in, then fished for an ice tray.

“Buy me a catheter,” Noel said. He gave a wan grin. “This is great shit, Krissy. Come. Listen.”

“I don’t speak Inuktitut.”

Noel laughed, and said it wasn’t Inuktitut, and then the room was quiet except for the crack-pop of ice cubes into a ziplock. Kristine wrapped the bag in a wet cloth, still watching Noel watching the screen, and held it against her shoulder.

“All right,” she said. “Show me.”

“Come.” Noel slipped the headphones from around his neck and held the ice against Kristine’s shoulder while she put them on.

The feedback volume made her jump.

“Sorry.” Noel dialed it down with a practiced finger. Kristine repositioned the headphones and listened. It was a low guttural wail, broken up by a sort of huffing. When she listened harder she could hear an uncanny melody.

“Nice. What is it?” She looked to the screen, where the spectrogram was showing the noise slither along, pitch black, undulating through the grayscale background. It made her think of ultrasounds.

“Throat-singing,” Noel said. “Beautiful. I tried it, when I was up there. Very difficult.” He turned the volume up slightly. “This is just the icing, though. You know, for when I get tired of the interviews. There are so many stories. Some of them, never heard in English. Never.”

Kristine watched him maneuver the mouse through his crowded screen, over IPA charts and reference logs. He pulled up another audio file. The throat-singing was replaced by an old man’s voice and a dialect that Noel said was all but extinct. She sat in his lap and they pushed their heads together, each using one side of the headphones, and listened.

Noel’s cheek scratched her cheek and his arms ended up around her, but with the ice trickling on her shoulder she couldn’t feel warm, and it wasn’t the time.

 

It happened in the night. Noel’s knee was keyed between her knees, his arm was over her arm. They’d fucked again, not so frantically this time, and Kristine was still awake when Noel plucked her hand out from under the covers. She turned in the dark and saw his eyes were not quite closed.

“Hey,” she said, moving back against him.

He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise. He brought her hand up to his face slowly, deliberately, with his thumb at her wrist. In the quiet Kristine could imagine the sound of her pulse against his skin. He opened his mouth and kissed his way along her arm, teeth skimming her, making her shiver.

Kristine half-smiled. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin. He gnawed at her wrist-bone, tickling her.

“I’m so glad you made it home,” Kristine said. “I’m just. You know. I was scared shitless, when I heard about the storms. When you called.”

Noel bit down, playful.

Kristine winced. “Easy, boy, I don’t need another one.”

Noel’s teeth pressed harder, deeper, so she could feel each individual crown.

“Noel, stop. You’re getting spit on me. Stop.”

Noel pulled back a moment, tracing the indented skin with his finger, and then he bit down again, not playful, a sudden sharp snap like an animal.

“Ouch!” Kristine jerked away. “Noel! Don’t!”

“Don’t what?” Noel asked thickly. Kristine slapped the light on, exposing the purple bags under her husband’s eyes, the sharpness of his cheekbones somehow more pronounced. “I just want…” He trailed off.

“Can’t you leave the transcription for like, a day?” Kristine demanded.

“Everything’s still fresh,” Noel said. “I’m, you know, I’m zoned.”

“You’re being weird. Really fucking weird.”

“You’re being dramatic.”

Kristine went to the bathroom, flicked the light on. She ran cold water over her arm. Her reflection in the mirror looked pale and sick. She prodded her stomach.

“Come on,” Noel groaned from the bed. “You don’t need a Band-Aid, Krissy.”

“Can’t you shave?” Kristine demanded, coming back. “Unpack? Call your dad to tell him you’re back so he doesn’t call me again?” The fresh mark was blooming on her arm, and when Noel saw it his expression was something she didn’t like. Kristine put her other hand overtop to hide it.

“I didn’t know he called you,” Noel said.

“I’m going to sleep in the study. Just for tonight.”

“I’m sorry. Look. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“You hate the hide-a-bed.” Noel rolled up and out of the covers. He scratched at his neck. “I’ll go,” he said. “Are there pillows?”

“In the linen closet,” Kristine said.

She stopped to get them on their way to the study, and then held them against herself while the hide-a-bed unfolded with a creak and a clunk. Noel took the pillows without smiling. He tossed them onto the bed.

“Good night,” he said.

It wasn’t.

 

Kristine needed a swim, so she left early in the morning with the sky still dark and didn’t even open the study door, just exchanged a good morning/good-bye with Noel’s half-asleep voice. Exhaust was billowing on the cold roads like a fog as she drove, one hand on her swim-bag. She dialed her mother at a stoplight. A voice thick with sleep or Valium answered on the fifth ring.

“Hi, honey, what is it?”

“Hi, Mom.” The light lanced green through the clouds of exhaust and Kristine drove. “I just had a question about the thank-you notes, I’m still finishing up and—”

“Noel’s back, isn’t that right? Give him my love. Hugs. How’s his frostbite?”

“I will,” Kristine said. “The thank-you note for Uncle Carrow, I can’t remember his girlfriend’s name. Was it Sheryl?”

“No. Carol? No. Hell, I can’t remember either.”

“Noel’s acting different.”

There was a staticky pause, and then her mother’s voice came edged with a sigh.

“What do you mean?”

“Just, I don’t know,” Kristine said, and she didn’t, not quite. “Doing weird things. Not eating. Yesterday after breakfast he didn’t eat anything all day. He’s, like, he’s obsessing over his transcription. Won’t talk to me.”

“Well, he’s driven, you know—”

“Not like that.” She dropped her indicator and turned into the Glenora parking lot, still mostly empty of cars.

“—and it’s a good thing. It really is.” Another pause. “A lot of things might be or look a little different now. All those little things that were nice, you know, endearing, a lot of those things look different when you realize it’s for the rest of your life.”

“It’s not a honeymoon is over thing, Mom,” Kristine said, putting the car into park. “It’s been over for a while.”

“I mean, your father, my God. He had his days. Weeks. Years. But it was all worth it. I never once thought of leaving him. And Noel’s a good man. A really good man. It’s all about compromises, isn’t it? People thinking marriage is supposed to be easy? Makes me laugh. It’s all about sacrifices. There were things I wanted to do, plenty of things…”

“I’m not talking about leaving him, Mom, I’m just saying he’s acting funny and I don’t know why.” She turned off the engine and fumbled the key into her coat pocket. “This thing with the storm…”

“Sharon. It was definitely Sharon, and half his age, too. Maybe a prostitute. Look, honey, just stop worrying. He hasn’t even been back for a week. Go for a swim, you’ll feel better.”

“Thanks,” Kristine said, hefting her bag. “Bye. Love you.”

“Bye, honey.”

 

She swam longer than she’d meant to, churning up and down the lane until the water felt bathtub warm, and so she went to the school with her hair still hanging wet wires and the toothed trace of swim-goggles around her one eye like a sucker scar. But she did feel better, even though Elijah and Braden had to be sent off to the principal for the third week running.

Noel didn’t answer her text, or the second one. She tried not to worry about it. She fixed a smile to her face as she climbed the stairs to the apartment, went down the hallway that always smelled like weed and Febreze, and keyed open their door. It was dark inside again. Kristine flicked on the lights and checked the bare sink. No dishes. She opened the fridge. Nothing touched.

“Hey, Mister Linguist!” Kristine called. “Where are you?”

No reply. Kristine remembered the noise-cancelling headphones and went looking. She was barely even surprised when she heard the computer hum from behind the study door. Cold was seeping out from the bottom of it. She eased the door open.

Noel was hunched over the laptop like an old man. The shadows hollowed out his cheeks and for a moment his eyes looked like black holes. Then he looked up with a bleary grin and pulled the headphones down around his neck.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

“How were the little terrors today?” Noel slapped the laptop shut.

“Good,” Kristine said. “Fine.”

“That little boy, that Elijah, he didn’t make trouble?”

Kristine cracked a smile. “Yeah, he did. A little bit.”

“He’s trying to impress you,” Noel said, scooting over on the rolling chair. “He has a crush.”

“Hm.”

“That’s why I make trouble.” Noel caught her wrist, the not-sore one, and folded both hands around it. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in my head, sometimes.”

“You scared me a little,” Kristine said. She gave a smile. “It’s okay. It’s nothing. Really.” Noel’s hands felt like ice. The frostbite was ugly. “Why’s the window open?”

“The laptop has been overheating,” Noel said. “I thought, maybe, if it’s colder in the study, maybe that helps.”

“Hungry?”

“I found something in the fridge,” Noel said.

Kristine stiffened. “No, you didn’t.”

“What?”

“You didn’t take anything out of the fridge,” Kristine said. “You didn’t eat anything, did you? You’ve been in here all day.”

“I got something at the Second Cup,” Noel said, but he let her pull her arm away.

“Your shoes were still where you left them yesterday.”

“You’re a detective or something?” Noel was still smiling, but only with his mouth. “You photograph where in the closet I put my shoes?”

“Why are you lying about this?” Kristine snapped. “Are you on a fucking hunger strike or something? Why are you acting like this?”

“Like what?” Noel asked, still prone in the office chair, still not angry. Kristine wanted him to stand up so she could shove him back down. She felt hot and sick all over.

“Was there somebody else up there?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Noel asked, and now his eyes were finally narrowing.

“I mean, did you fuck somebody while you were up there?” Kristine demanded. “You called once the whole time, and now you come back, you won’t talk to me, you’re acting so fucking weird—”

“Of course not.” Noel was up, teeth bared. “Of course I didn’t. Did you?”

“Oh, my God, Noel.” Kristine gave a shaky laugh. “Just shut up, Noel.”

They stood frozen for a long moment, Kristine’s nails digging crescents in her palms. She watched Noel’s face work until the grimace smoothed over.

“Maybe I have a bug,” he said slowly. “My stomach doesn’t feel right. I didn’t want you to worry.”

Kristine nodded. She rubbed her eye with the heel of her hand.

“What happened in the storm?” she finally asked. “Do you even remember calling me? They had a satellite phone in the infirmary, and you called me in the middle of the night.”

“I remember calling,” Noel said, cautious.

“Do you remember what I told you?” Kristine asked, remembering how she’d gone to the bathroom, flicked on the lights, pulled out the test again just to be sure. That was before she’d realized how late it was, that something was wrong.

“I don’t.” Noel shook his head. “I don’t. I don’t remember what I said, either.”

“You were delirious,” Kristine said, wrapping her arms around herself. The bite on her shoulder throbbed again. “You told me how you got stranded, right? Between the station and the village. One of those storms that comes from nowhere.”

“Worst they had seen in years,” Noel said. “They told me that later. Yeah.” His voice had an unsteadiness Kristine was unused to hearing, and somehow it drained all the anger out of her. “What else did I say?” he asked.

“You said the wind felt like teeth.”

“Like death,” Noel said.

“The Ski-Doo broke down, so you tried to walk back to the village.”

“Went the wrong way. They told me later.”

“You said the mucus in your nose and the spit in your mouth were so frozen up you couldn’t breathe, and the wind was like teeth.” Kristine paused. “You said you lost your hands, then your feet. Like being disembodied. Like floating.”

“Should’ve died,” Noel muttered. “Should’ve frozen to death.”

“They told me that, after they took the phone away from you,” Kristine said. “I mean, it’s a miracle you’re all right.” She shrugged helplessly. “Doesn’t this feel better?” she asked. “To talk about it? Isn’t this what’s been bothering you?”

“What else did I say?” Noel probed.

“I don’t remember,” Kristine said. “You were fevered. You know, delirious.”

“Did I say what I saw?” Noel’s eyes were wide. “Kristine. Tell me.”

“Yeah. You did.” Kristine swayed, foot to foot. “You thought you saw someone else in the storm. An old man.”

Noel shut his eyes now, breathing quick and shallow. “What did he look like?”

“Tall,” Kristine said. “Taller than the trees. Skinny like those starving kids they show on UNICEF ads. And he was naked.” She stopped. “People see things. You know. Your brain was practically, it must have been practically shutting off.”

“He didn’t have a face,” Noel said. “Just a big dark mouth. Big black hole. I still remember it so clear. Clearer than what actually happened.”

“I think you might have PTSD or something, Noel. I’m worried.”

“It’s nothing like that.” Noel’s voice was strained. He opened his eyes. Blinked. “I haven’t been myself. I know. I just need to get this transcription done, and then I’ll be done with it all. I’m looking for this one story. I know it’s in there somewhere. Just give me the week, Krissy. Be patient for me.”

“Of course,” Kristine said. “I get it. Really.” She put her hand against Noel’s hip. It felt sharp enough to cut.

“You do?”

“Yeah. I mean.” Kristine paused. “If you need to get through this transcription so you can be done with everything, storm included, and just stop thinking about it, then yeah. I get it. And then you’ll be yourself again. I get it.”

They embraced, and it felt like all angles. Kristine wasn’t sure, but she almost thought her hands could make out the nodes of his spine under his thin wool sweater.

 

He said he didn’t want to pass on whatever bug was in his stomach, so Noel slept in the study again. They pretended it was a sort of game, and reminded each other of the weekend Noel’s French Catholic parents had stayed with them, back during the engagement, when they’d had to rearrange all their things so it looked like they slept in separate rooms.

On Tuesday Kristine stayed late at the school with her lesson plans, hoping she’d come back to find Noel antsy and missing her, something simmering on the stove, maybe his sketch-pad out on the coffee table or a comedy queued up on Netflix. That didn’t happen, so on Wednesday she stayed late at the school to minimize the time between arriving home and going to sleep alone. She pretended she was married to a genius, consumed by his latest work, and she was making sacrifices.

That night, Kristine woke up cold. The shadows in her room were Baltic blue and when she nudged her phone the screen read 3:42 AM. She pulled her feet back under the sheets, coaxing a static crackle, and rolled over.

The apartment door thunked.

Kristine sat up, clutching her phone. Half of a dream was fogging the inside of her skull. She padded into the hallway on bare feet, navigating by the light of her screen, and felt the cold coming from the study. The door was wide open. So was the window.

She hauled it shut with both hands, breathing an icy cloud, wondering about the pipes, how long it took for them to freeze in this weather. Snow was blowing in drifts off roofs and balconies, through the bony branches of a tree where a black garbage bag fluttered.

Someone was in the stairwell, feet slapping the plastic-capped steps. Kristine left the study, checked the bathroom, hoping but knowing better, and then found her jacket and keys. Her inchoate dream was dancing in the back of her head. She locked the door and circled down the four flights that had made moving such an ordeal and such a triumph. She trailed her hand on the nick they’d left with the corner of their big stupid couch.

“Noel?” she called.

The reply was the click and catch of the exterior door opening, closing. She went quickly down the last flight, zipping her coat up to her neck. The forecast had been for an overnight drop down to minus thirty, cold enough to make metal burn. Kristine felt a thrumming under her skin as she came to the glass door. Outside, the lampposts spilled yellow pools on the lumpy ice street. A disconnected shadow was crossing the empty road, going towards the park, the playground Kristine had wanted nearby even though it had seemed too early to think about kids. She opened the door and the cold bit her hard.

“Noel!” she shouted, feeling ice rasp her throat, freeze her nostrils. The shadow didn’t turn around. Kristine pulled up his number by muscle memory and called him as she followed. She held her phone up like a torch, listening to the soft chime, peering into the dark. There was no pick-up, but she hadn’t expected one, and now anxiety was gnawing at her stomach as she reached the park, rounded the corner of the half-painted gazebo.

Noel was ankle-deep in the snow, back turned toward her, and he was naked. In the fluorescent light from the gazebo his skin looked wax-pale, all but translucent, bruised with cold blue shadows. Kristine’s eyes traced the cavities of his body. His spine looked sharp as scalpels. He was not shivering, not moving. Kristine was trembling all over.

The dream was coming back to her now. She didn’t want him to turn around, because she knew what she’d see: a raw-red throat like a subway tunnel, gnashing teeth, no eyes. Her fingers were going numb at her sides.

“Noel, this isn’t…funny,” Kristine said, halting. “You’re going to freeze to death. You’re going to get more frostbite.”

Noel turned, and it was Noel’s face, heavy with sleep. He gave her a confused look. He looked down at his purple-scarred fingers.

“You’re sleepwalking.” Kristine took a hesitant step, then another, crunching through the snow. “Come on. You’re going to freeze. Come on. You’re sleepwalking, like the time in Calgary. At the hotel.” She gripped his hand and tugged. He followed, stumbling slightly, red feet battered by ice. Kristine tried not to look at his ruined toenails.

They walked slowly, slowly, snow peppering their faces and searing their lips. They passed the creaking playground with its rubber swings, the ones they’d sat in, dragging circles in the snow with their boots while they looked up at the apartment complex and invented such big beautiful dreams. She tried to picture Noel pushing a tiny body, bundled in a parka, red-cheeked, but didn’t manage it.

The wind picked up as they crossed the road, and by the time they reached the door it felt like teeth on Kristine’s bare face.

 

In the morning, Kristine left before Noel could wake up and wonder about the bathtub full of lukewarm water, or the towels wrapped around him and under him on the couch. Kristine had played with the thermostat before and after eating breakfast, but the apartment was still cold. She needed the pool, the chlorine warmth of it, the lactic acid in her arms and shoulders. She threw up before she left.

She dialed her mother at the yield sign.

“Hi, honey.” The voice was faux-cheery. “Sorry, I meant to return your call yesterday, it completely slipped my mind. I was over at the Blackstocks’, you know how she talks.”

“I don’t really remember them,” Kristine said. “I was, um, I was out walking last night, and I noticed some vacancies in the apartment down the road.”

“Oh?”

Kristine’s nails drummed the wheel. “Well, I was wondering if you’re still thinking about that. You know, about moving. We talked about it in the summer, remember?”

“Too cold up there. Did we talk about that?”

“You said you wanted to be closer,” Kristine said. She bit her lip. “Grandkids?”

“Honey, do you have news?”

She thought about telling her for a second, imagining how her mother’s voice would turn instantly to sunshine. “No, no,” she relented. “I just meant, you know, for the future.” She could hear a disappointed breath on the other end.

“Too cold, honey, and besides, you know I wouldn’t be able to leave this place. Not after all the work your father put into it. So much of himself, he put into it. It just wouldn’t feel right.”

“I thought you said the upkeep…?”

“I can manage, honey. I’m sturdy. Besides, you don’t need your mother hassling you all the time. You and Noel have each other now. It’s normal to be, I don’t know, to be overwhelmed a little at first, trying to make it as a young couple, especially with him doing the doctorate. But I know you can make it work. You’re a good girl.”

An SUV honked from behind and Kristine realized she hadn’t moved from the yield sign. She pulled away, ending the call without saying good-bye, and wiped at her stinging eyes.

 

When she got home from the school she went straight to the study, rumpled card clutched in her palm. She could hear the laptop hum from under the door. She opened without knocking.

“I made you an appointment,” Kristine said. “With this counselor. It’s through the university.”

Noel glanced up. His face was still swallowed between headphones and his eyes were strangely cloudy. He tapped something out on the keyboard.

“Aren’t you going to ask about last night?” Kristine said softly.

Noel said nothing. The window was shut, but he was shirtless. His collarbones had grown a new geometry, skimming up like shark fins. Sweat was beaded under his hairline.

“You sleepwalked out into the park,” Kristine said. “It was fucking forty below. You could have died.”

Noel gave a fractional shrug. His eyes returned to the screen, and Kristine could tell from the swipe of his finger that the volume was going up.

“I wish you had cheated on me,” she said.

Noel tapped his headphone to show he couldn’t hear. His smile was too broad, too many teeth, a Cheshire cat grin.

“I wish I’d cheated,” Kristine said, feeling a tingle up and down her back, something cold and angular in her gut.

Noel said nothing.

Kristine dropped the appointment card and left.

 

The next day she spent lunch-hour talking in circles with the health center. They mumbled at her about seasonal depression, flu virus. When it came time to teach ecosystems she begged someone out of the staff-room to watch her class watch YouTube clips about photovores and herbivores and carnivores. She went to the bathroom and speed-read through Wikipedia articles and WebMD links. She tried to throw up. A few people asked her if she was all right, and she nearly told them.

When she got home, the apartment was empty and Noel’s shoes were not in the closet. It seemed like the thermostat had finally kicked in, because she didn’t get goose bumps when she shrugged off her coat. Kristine hunted the bare counters for a note for a good five minutes before she gave up and put some Thai in the microwave.

Maybe he’d finished the transcription. Maybe if she went to the bathroom she’d find bristles in the sink, and then he’d be arriving back with clean-shaven cheeks, a bottle of white wine, take-out from the Mediterranean place they’d loved so much that first month after moving in. She would tell him she had news; he would already know. For a moment the image was so clear that Kristine nearly stopped the microwave and put the leftovers back into the fridge.

Instead, she went to the study. The door was wide open again, but the window was shut. Noel hadn’t taken the laptop with him. Kristine hesitated for a moment, then plucked it off the desk and sat down on the hide-a-bed with it. Her hand kneaded the sheets while it booted up. The password screen appeared, and Kristine put in her name, clacked the enter key. The affirmative chime made her almost smile.

The transcription window was already waiting, a block of IPA symbols. Kristine tried to remember the phonetics classes she’d taken; most of the sounds she’d already forgotten. One word seemed to be recurring: wɛŋdəgoʊ. She pulled up the next window, and saw that Noel had translated a section into English. At the top it was labeled audio48.mp3. Kristine clicked back to the sound files and pulled the headphones up over her ears. She started to read.

the wendigo is hunger, and hunger is the wendigo. a man travelled by night. he hunted the herd. the wendigo hunted the man. a man travelled by night and through the wood, and the [blizzard] snow drove him off his trail. the wendigo hunted the man, its arms were the cold and its teeth were the wind. a man had death inside [in stomach]. the cold kills, the hunger kills. hunger is the wendigo. a man lies down in the snow. his body is given to the ice. a man travelled alone. the wendigo came to him with [singing] open mouth. the wendigo has jaws as icicles. the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo. a man travelled by night,

“Krissy?”

She flung upright, all her nerves sparked at once; Noel was inches away and his eyes were black as jet. The laptop crashed to the floor between them, Kristine’s heart hammered in her throat. His face was gaunt, stretched thin, canvas over bones.

“Why did you write that?” Kristine whispered.

“I didn’t,” Noel said. The glass Pyrex pan from the microwave was clutched in his one hand. He held it out between them, arm shaking slightly.

“Bullshit you didn’t. What do you mean? What do you mean you didn’t write it?” Kristine stepped back and felt the cold edge of the hide-a-bed against the bends of her knees. Noel’s pale face was slick with sweat.

“I translated it,” he said, voice wavering. “It was already there. I knew it was there. I just had to find it. Those old men had so many stories.” He held the Pyrex out again, still shaking, and Kristine took it so it wouldn’t fall.

“Why are you doing this?” Kristine demanded. The glass was cold again. “Why are you fucking inventing this?”

“I’m not,” Noel pleaded. “Krissy. Look.”

And she had to. He held up his spidery hand, so much more bone than she remembered it, wrists like doorknobs, and planted his teeth in the webbing between thumb and finger. With a wet tearing sound, he sheared through the flesh. Kristine’s lungs caught, she anticipated the spray of bright red blood, but there was nothing. Something thick and black glistened along the torn skin, and then suddenly the hand was back together again.

“It can’t be me,” Noel said. “I tried.”

“Oh, my God, Noel.”

His face contorted all at once and he lunged, his teeth suddenly canine; Kristine swung the glass dish in the same motion. It slammed against his temple with a thick crack: Noel was reeling off to the side, cursing in French, and Kristine was pushing past him, slamming the door, throwing herself against it. Her breath came in a wail. Noel’s body thumped against the door once, then twice, Kristine shoved back with her shoulders, and then he stopped.

“We’re going to call emergency,” Kristine said, when her heart was beating again. “I’m dialing 911. There’s something, I don’t know, some disease you picked up up there. I know this isn’t you. I know it can’t be you.” She couldn’t keep her voice steady, it slipped away from her between words.

“Oh, fuck,” came Noel’s voice, raw. “Oh, fuck. I drove to the university hospital. That’s where I was. Jacob. You remember Jacob. The med-student. He told me how they keep cadavers. I thought, maybe, I don’t know. I couldn’t get in. They called security.”

“This can’t be real, Noel.”

He went on like he hadn’t heard. “Then I thought, the morgue, maybe. Or, I don’t know.” He gave a broken laugh. “A graveyard. Maybe that. I have to know. I just have to. I’m going to die soon. If I don’t eat, I’m going to die.”

Kristine was muffling a sob in her hand, biting down as hard as she could. “A doctor,” she gasped.

“This can’t be for doctors. When you’re wendigo, you’re wendigo. Until you give in. That was what they said.”

“And then?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know.” He stopped. “There are more stories. More transcriptions. Maybe if I keep going, keep looking. I don’t know.”

Kristine didn’t reply. She sat against the door, tears sticky on her cheeks, and waited for hours. Waited for Noel’s breathing to turn regular, shallow but regular, so she was sure he was asleep. She moved the bookcase in front of the study door, groaning and scraping. It was heavy. Her hands came away with deep red welts.

 

She was up early the next morning, wiping down the kitchen counters and stovetop with Purell so everything gleamed. When she popped the ice cubes out of their tray they skittered off the table and onto the floor. Her hands were shivering as she dropped them one by one into a plastic bag. She set her wedding ring on the counter and dialed her mother.

“Hey, honey, what’s up?”

“Call me my name?” Kristine’s voice came in a sob; she tamped it down.

“What’s wrong, Kristine?”

“It’s nothing,” Kristine said, toying with the ring. “I just remembered, that cousin you had, the farmer. He lost his hand in a thresher. He just wore it on the other finger, right? His wedding ring, I mean. He wore it on the right.”

“That’s right, yes. On the right. I think that might be how they do it in Europe, too.”

“Okay.” Kristine packed more ice around her left ring finger, waiting for the numb. “I was just remembering that.” She went to the counter, to the shiny Cutco knives, another wedding gift. She tried to remember the sharpest one.

“Was that all? I’m half-asleep, honey.”

“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.” There was a long pause. Kristine looked down at her left hand, thinking of how it cupped when she swam, how the fingers all melded together and bit the water just so. She thought about the small warm thing growing in her belly.

“I don’t remember. I don’t remember exactly what I said.”

“Okay,” Kristine said, turning the stovetop on. “Bye, mom.”

“Bye, honey.”

Kristine held the ice around her finger and stared at the stove element, waiting for it to turn orange.

 

“Dark Warm Heart” copyright © 2017 by Rich Larson

Art copyright © 2017 by Samuel Araya

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The Three Lives of Sonata James | Tor.com

In a cyber-enhanced, futuristic Chicago, Sonata knows near-immortality is achievable through downloading her mind into a cyborg body after death. But this young artist wants to prove that living fo…

Source: The Three Lives of Sonata James | Tor.com

Click on the link to read the rest of the novella.

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Hard or Soft? How do you like your S.F.?

How Do You Like Your Science Fiction? Ten Authors Weigh In On ‘Hard’ vs. ‘Soft’ SF

by Fran Wilde

Source: http://www.tor.com/2016/01/21/how-do-you-like-your-science-fiction-ten-authors-weigh-in-on-hard-vs-soft-sf/

With The Martian a big-screen success and Star Wars: The Force Awakens blowing box office doors off their hinges, articles like this one from NPR have begun appearing all over, encouraging SF authors and readers to “Get Real.” Meanwhile, debates about whether one movie or another is scientific enough are cropping up in various corners of the internet. (This, in my view, feels like an odd ranking system—if one movie has a sarlacc pit as an ancestor, and another might be seen as channeling Ghost [1990, the one with Demi Moore] as a way to explain cross-universe communication via physics… it’s pretty cool, yes? It’s fun to let imaginations wander about? Yes. I’ll be seeing you in the comments, yes. Onwards.)

2001: A Space Odyssey, an example of "hard" science fiction.

2001: A Space Odyssey, an example of “hard” science fiction.

So is a deeper, harder line being drawn in the sand about “hard” science fiction than usual? Or are we discovering that perhaps there’s a whole lot more sand available with regards to how imaginative and future-looking fiction can develop, and even entertaining the possibility that these developments could become blueprints for future-fact?

I asked ten science fiction authors about their definitions of “hard” and “soft” science fiction, and how they see science fiction (hard, soft, and otherwise) in today’s terms. They returned with ten fascinating—and not surprisingly, entirely different—answers.

Have a read and then maybe jump in the comments to discuss!

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress’s latest work is The Best of Nancy Kress (Subterranean Press, 2015).

“Hard SF” and “soft SF” are really both misnomers (although useful in their way). Hard SF has several varieties, starting with really hard, which does not deviate in any way from known scientific principles in inventing the future; this is also called by some “mundane SF.” However, even the hardest SF involves some speculation or else it would not be science fiction.

High-viscosity SF takes some guesses about where current science might go IF certain discoveries are made (such as, for instance, identifying exactly which genes control things like intelligence, plus the ability to manipulate them). Or, alternately, it starts with one implausibility but develops everything else realistically from there (as in Andy Weir’s The Martian, with its huge-velocity windstorm on Mars). From there you go along a continuum toward things that, with our current level of knowledge, do not seem possible, such as faster-than-light travel. At some point along that continuum, high-viscosity SF becomes science fantasy, and then fantasy, when magic is involved. But the critical point is that it IS a continuum, and where a given innovation belongs on it is always a matter of dispute. This is good, because otherwise half the panels at SF cons would have nothing to argue about.

I would define “soft SF” as stories in which SF tropes are used as metaphors rather than literals. For example, aliens that don’t differ from us much in what they can breathe, drink, eat, or how their tech functions. They have no delineated alien planet in the story, because they are meant to represent “the other,” not a specific scientifically plausible creature from an exosolar environment. This seems to me a perfectly valid form of science fiction (see my story “People Like Us”), but it is definitely not “hard SF,” no matter how much fanciful handwaving the author does. Nor are clones who are telepathic or evil just because they’re clones (it’s delayed twinning, is all) or nanotech that can create magical effects (as in the dreadful movie Transcendence).

Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson’s Sci-fi novel Rosewater, from Apex Books, will be released in September 2016.

First, a working definition of SF: fiction that has, at its core, at least one science and/or extrapolation of same to what could be possible.

Second, a (messy) working definition of a science: a field of knowledge that has at its core the scientific method, meaning systematic analyses of observed phenomena including objective observations, hypothesis/null hypothesis, statistical analysis, experimentation, peer review with duplication of findings. I am aware that this definition is a mess.

Defining ‘Hard’ SF is a bit difficult. If we use the Millerian definition (scientific or technical accuracy and detail), it won’t hold water. The reason is not all sciences are equal in SF. In my experience, fictional works that focus on physics, astronomy, mathematics, engineering and (to a lesser extent) chemistry tend to be filed as ‘Hard,’ especially if there is an exploratory or militaristic aspect. The further the extrapolation of the science from what is known, the more likely the story will be classed as ‘soft.’ On the other hand, those that Jeff VanderMeer jokingly refers to as ‘squishy’ sciences like botany, mycology, zoology, etc. tend to be classed as soft SF along with the social sciences like anthropology, psychology, etc. Medicine can fall either way, depending on the actual narrative.

That the definitions are problematic becomes obvious immediately. I find the terms intellectually uninteresting because they assume that social sciences use less rigor, which I know to be untrue. My background is in medicine and anthropology, and I have seen both sides.

There may be other elements to the definitions. There may be a pejorative flavor to being designated ‘soft’. There may be some gender bias, although I have seen this in discussions, and not in print. Take a lot of the work of Ursula Le Guin. Many would not class her SF as ‘Hard’ despite her clear understanding of anthropology and psychology. The exploration of cultures should not take a back seat to the exploration of the solar system. Take Frankenstein, which is often regarded as the first science fiction novel. Few would regard it as Hard SF, yet it used contemporary scientific beliefs. At the time the novel was set, galvanism was a big thing. Reanimation was not thought to be impossible. The Royal Humane Society in England started with reanimation of the dead at its core, and its motto is a small spark may perhaps lie hid.

At the root of the Hard-Soft divide is a kind of “I scienced more than you” attitude, which is unnecessary. There are fans of all flavours of SF and the last thing we need is to focus on divisions that were introduced in the late 1950s.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s most recent novel is Karen Memory (Tor 2015). You can find her on Twitter.

I feel like the purported hard/soft SF divide is one of those false dichotomies that humans love so much—like white/black, male/female, and so forth. The thing is, it’s really arbitrary. I write everything from fairy tales to fairly crunchy sciency SF, and I think the habit of shoving all of this stuff into increasingly tiny boxes that really amount to marketing categories is kind of a waste of time. There’s no intrinsic moral element that makes a rigorously extrapolated near-future cascading disaster story (like The Martian) “better” than an equally critically hailed and popular sociological extrapolation. Is anybody going to argue, for example, that 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t worthy books because they are about societies in crisis rather than technology?

I love hard—or rigorously extrapolated physical—science fiction, for what it’s worth. My list of favorite books includes Peter Watts, Tricia Sullivan, and Robert L. Forward. But it’s not new, and it’s not dying out. It’s always been a percentage of the field (though Analog still has the biggest readership of any English-language SF magazine, I believe) and it’s still a vibrant presence in our midst, given writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and James L. Cambias, for example. It’s hard to write, and hard to write well, mind, and Andy Weir kind of knocked it out of the park.

My own pocket definition of SF is that it’s the literature of testing concepts to destruction: space travel, societies, ideologies. At its best, that’s what science fiction does that most other literary forms do not. (Most of them—the ones with a literary bent, at least–are about testing people (in the form of people-shaped objects called “characters”) to destruction. Science fiction does it on a scale up to and including entire galaxies, which is kind of cool. Drawing little boxes around one bit of it and saying, “This is the real thing here,” is both basically pointless and basically a kind of classism. It’s the Apollonian/Dionysian divide again, just like the obsession of certain aspects of SF with separating the mind from the meat.

(Spoiler: you can’t: you are your mind, and your mind is a bunch of physical and chemical and electrical processes in some meat. You might be able to SIMULATE some of those processes elsewhere, but it seems to me entirely unlikely that anybody will ever “upload a person,” excepting the unlikely proposition that we somehow find an actual soul somewhere and figure out how to stick it in a soul bottle for later use.)

Anyway, I kind of think it’s a boring and contrived argument, is what I’m saying here.

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone’s latest novel is Last First Snow (Tor, 2015). Find him on Twitter.

Hard SF is, in theory, SF where the math works. Of course, our knowledge of the universe is limited, so hard SF ends up being “SF where the math works, according to our current understanding of math,” or even “according to the author’s understanding of math,” and often ends up feeling weirdly dated over time. In very early SF you see a lot of “sub-ether” devices, from back when we still thought there might be a luminiferous ether; more recent SF that depends on a “Big Crunch” singularity collapse end of the universe seems very unlikely these days, since observations suggest the universe’s expansion is accelerating. Often you find stories in which the orbital dynamics are exactly right, but everyone’s using computers the size of a house, because of course 33rd century computers will still be made with vacuum tubes, or stories that have decent rocketry but a lousy understanding of genetics, or stories that get both rocketry and genetics right, but don’t have a clue how human societies or beings function.

I don’t think there’s a dichotomy, really. “Hardness” is a graph where the X axis starts at zero, and that’s, say, Star Wars—SF that doesn’t even mention math or orbital dynamics, but is still recognizably SF—and proceeds to, say, Apollo 13, which is so hard it’s not even fiction. On the y axis you have “quality.” You can place every SF text somewhere within that space, but no curve exists. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is SF so hard that it borders on a technothriller, but that hardness doesn’t determine its quality when set against, say, The Left Hand of Darkness (where the plot hinges on FTL comms), or Childhood’s End (force fields, psychic storm omega point gestalts, etc.).

But if we really want something to pose against “hard,” how about “sharp SF”? Sharp SF acknowledges that our understanding of the universe is a moving target, and believes the point of SF is to show how human beings, relationships, and societies transform or endure under different conditions. Sharp SF takes math, physics, sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, psychology, etc. into account when posing its hypothetical worlds—but cares more about the human consequences of those hypotheticals than it cares about the hypothetical’s underlying architecture. I’d include 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parable of the Sower, Nova, Dune, and Lord of Light as canonical examples of good sharp SF.

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard’s latest novel, The House of Shattered Wings, was published by Roc (US)/Gollancz (RoW) in August 2015.

I think they’re labels, and as labels they’re useful because they tell you what kind of story you’re going to get, and what it’s going to focus on (in the case of hard SF, hard sciences such as maths, physics, computer science, and an emphasis on the nitty-gritty of science and engineering as core to the plot. Soft SF is going to focus more on sociology, societies and the interaction between characters). The issue with labels is twofold: first, they can be used dismissively, i.e., “it’s not real SF if it’s not hard SF,” or “hard SF is the best kind of SF and everything else is of little worth,” which is unfortunately something I see happening all too often. And it’s doubly problematic, because this dismissal is disproportionately used to single out women/POCs/marginalised people as not writing “proper SF.” (I should add that I’ve got nothing whatsoever against hard SF and will quite happily enjoy an Alastair Reynolds or a Hannu Rajaniemi when I’m in the mood for it).

The second issue is that like any labels, they can be restrictive: they can create an impression in the author’s mind that “real SF” should have such and such; and particularly the emphasis on the nitty-gritty of science makes a lot of people feel like they shouldn’t be writing hard SF, that you should have several PhDs and degrees and everyday practice of physics, etc., to even consider writing something. It’s not that it doesn’t help (as someone with a degree in science, I can certainly attest that it helps make things go down more smoothly with only minimal amounts of research), but I worry that it raises a barrier to entry that doesn’t really have a reason to be there. My personal testimony is that I held off from writing SF because I didn’t think I had the chops for it (and that’s in spite of the actual maths/computer science degree…); and also that it took me a long time to write what I actually wanted to write because I was afraid that taking bits and pieces from every subgenre I liked was somehow an unspeakable crime…

Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams’ novella “Impersonations” will appear from Tor.com Publishing in September 2016.

I’d define Hard SF as a subdivision of Geek Fiction. I’m currently at work on a General Theory of Geek Fiction, and while my ideas are still in flux, I can define Geek Fiction as that fiction in which the greatest emphasis is given to process. The story becomes not one of plot or character or setting—although ideally those are present as well—but a story in which the action is broken down into a series of technical problems to be solved.

Thus The Martian is a book about all the technical problems that need to be surmounted in order to survive on Mars. C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books are about the technical issues involved in commanding square-rigged sailing ships in wartime. Police procedurals are about the process of police procedure. These sorts of books can be about other things as well, but if the emphasis isn’t on process, it’s not Geek Fiction.

As for Soft SF, it’s better to define it by what it is instead of by what it isn’t. After all, Soft SF includes space opera, science fantasy, dystopia, near-future works, alternative history, time travel stories, satirical and comic SF, and great big unclassifiable tours-de-force like Dhalgren. Just call the thing what it is.

Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages (and her co-author Andy Duncan) won the 2014 World Fantasy Award for the novella, “Wakulla Springs,” originally published at Tor.com.

Attempting to differentiate hard and soft science fiction implies that “science” has gradations on some sort of undefined, Mohs-like scale. Talc science vs. diamond science. But that seems to me a misunderstanding of what science is. Science is not an established body of knowledge as much as it is an attempt to explain things that we don’t yet know, and to organize what we do know in a systematic way. It is the manual that the world ought to have come with, but was somehow left out of the box.

Things We Don’t Know is a rather large category to begin with, and is also quite fluid, because everything we do know is continually shifting and changing—our understanding of reality is a work in progress. When most people say “this is hard science fiction” they mean the plot depends on demonstrable, provable, known facts about the physical world. Hard, like concrete, not fluid and mutable like water.

I sometimes think they also mean it in the same sense as when Mac users were looked down on by PC users 30 years ago: if you didn’t know how to program your computer, you didn’t really know how to use one. If it’s not hard (as in difficult to do or to understand), it has less value.

Historically, hard science fiction has been more about how inanimate objects work than how human beings live. More about plot than about character. Go figure. Humans—or at the very least, biological beings—are part of any world, and there’s so, so much we don’t know about them. So studying what makes humans tick—the sciences of sociology, economics, linguistics, psychology, etc.—must surely be as much part of that missing world manual as physics and chemistry. A person is more complex than any machine I can think of, and when we start aggregating into groups and societies and nations, that complexity grows exponentially.

I prefer my science fiction to be well-rounded, exploring and explaining the people as well as the furniture and the landscape.

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus’ latest story, “Super Duper Fly” appeared in Apex Magazine.

The thing is, my background is as a hard science guy. I have a B.S. in biology and I can still remember the grumbling during our graduation when those who received degrees in psychology were introduced as fellow graduates of the School of Science. Ironically, even after a 20-year career in environmental toxicology, the science of my SF writing tends to lean to the “soft” side of things.

There is an imagined line in the sand that doesn’t need to be there. In fact, hard and soft SF go hand-in-hand. Much of the SF I’m drawn to turns on the soft science of sociology. The impact of technology in a culture’s development, how people organize, and how people interact with the technology and each other because of it. (Think of how prescient 1984 seems now.) And for all of the hard science of The Martian, it would all be science porn if we also didn’t have the soft science of psychology in play also. A story is ultimately driven by the psychology of its characters.

Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata’s novel The Red: First Light was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2015.

My definition of hard SF is pretty simple and inclusive. It’s science fiction that extrapolates future technologies while trying to adhere to rules of known or plausible science. “Plausible,” of course, being a squishy term and subject to opinion. For me, the science and technology, while interesting in itself, is the background. The story comes from the way that technology affects the lives of the characters.

I don’t use the term “soft science fiction.” It’s one of those words whose meaning is hard to pin down, and likely to change with circumstances. Instead I think about science fiction as a continuum between hard science fiction and space fantasy, with no clear dividing line—although when you’ve wandered well into one or the other, you know it. And besides, just because we’ve split out the hard stuff, that doesn’t mean that everything that’s left can be dumped into the same “not hard” category. So there is science fiction, and within it there is hard science fiction, planetary stories, retro science fiction, space opera, military science fiction, and a lot more—but I don’t have an all-encompassing term for the non-hard stuff.

Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick’s latest novel is Chasing the Phoenix (Tor, 2015). He’s won many awards.

I go with what Algis Budrys said, that hard science fiction is not a subgenre but a flavor, and that that flavor is toughness. It doesn’t matter how good your science is, if you don’t understand this you’ll never get street cred for your hard SF story. You not only have to have a problem, but your main character must strive to solve it in the right way—with determination, a touch of stoicism, and the consciousness that the universe is not on his or her side. You can throw in a little speech about the universe wanting to kill your protagonist, if you like, but only Larry Niven has been able to pull that off and make the reader like it.

Source: http://www.tor.com/2016/01/21/how-do-you-like-your-science-fiction-ten-authors-weigh-in-on-hard-vs-soft-sf/

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