Book Problems

Let’s admit it, bookworms–we have problems.

We wring our hands over what to read next, hardcover or e-book, fold down page corners or use bookmarks, to lend or not to lend…I could keep going!

Today I want to talk about: how do you decide what to read next?

Now I’m a beginner blogger so I don’t have obligations; no one is sending me ARCs to read and I understand that can certainly influence a person’s TBR order. But when that isn’t a consideration and you have approximately a hundred thousand books you want to read, how do you choose which comes next?

Comment and let me know how you decide!

REVIEW: CHAMELEON MOON

Chameleon Moon (written by RoAnna Sylver)

FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS

 I loved this book so much.

I’ve been attempting to read more indie books and authors, and as I follow Sylver on Twitter I thought this would be a good place to start and I’m so glad I took the chance. I love this book, I love it in so many ways that it’s hard to describe. But I’ll try!

I love that this book is fearless.

When you read a lot of genre (like I do) you get used to a set of tropes and borders in stories. There are certain things you know that different genres will do–whether it’s SciFi or Fantasy–you know the edges, the general outline. But “Chameleon Moon” is so much different. It’s so BRAVE, like…I suppose you could classify it as a SciFi or dystopian story but it’s more. There are elements of fantasy, of superhero fiction, romance, even a healthy dose of gothic imagery and storytelling. And you’d think it’d be a mess, right? But it’s not! Sylver doesn’t seem to believe in borders or genre outlines and it’s so amazing to read a book that isn’t afraid to tell its story with whatever tools are available.

I love that this book is soft.

By that I mean, I love that the characters in this book speak gently to one another. Even when things are bad, or scary, or hopeless, the characters are never cruel. They’re never snappy or snarky just for the hell of it, they’re never needlessly morose or macabre. They’re people and they love one another so strongly and it actually comes across that way. Sylver is unafraid to show her characters deeply and gently caring about each other–whether romantically, platonically, or as family (or all three!). I love that I could read this book without wincing once at something a character says to another character. I love that I felt safe with the people Sylver creates.

I love this book because it’s diverse. Of course. I love how many different types of love are portrayed. I adore the various ways sacrifices are presented, how love is at once selfish and selfless, personal and universal. I love that the relationships don’t exist to cause drama, or that plot is unnecessarily propelled along by hatred or intolerance. I love that this book exists as a model for the many ways we can fall in love or be with other people. It’s amazing and natural and wonderful.

I could probably go on forever tbh but I’ll leave it at this: read this book. It has everything I wanted and things I didn’t even know I wanted but I’m so glad to have. I want more books like this immediately. I’m so happy that it exists.

A Trope I Would Like To See Consigned To The Deepest Level Of Hell

Today in: TROPES THAT ARE BAD

Mentally ill parents portrayed as abusive/abusive parents portrayed as abusive BECAUSE of their mental illnesses.

Hi! I’m a mentally ill parent!

I have generalized anxiety disorder, severe depression, OCD, and probably other things that have not been diagnosed. I also have an eight-year-old daughter. Despite what fiction might have suggested to you, I’m not a horrible abusive monster. I’m–all things considered–a pretty decent mother. My daughter is happy and secure and she knows she’s loved. She is provided for and safe.

But if you go by fiction, you’d think I was for sure the antagonist in my daughter’s story. Mentally ill parents are rarely ever portrayed positively–instead, their mental illnesses are used as a reason behind their abusive behaviors, providing a sort of gross shorthand for the author. A character’s mother is depressed so she is obviously neglectful; a character’s mother has OCD so she is cruel and demanding; a character’s mother is bipolar so she is nightmare; and on and on and on.

Look I’m not saying every single parent with mental illness isn’t abusive. Some are! But so are parents without mental illnesses. Mental illness doesn’t inherently explain abuse.

It’s important to send this trope to hell because so many mentally ill people are parents, or dream of becoming parents someday. It would be nice to see myself represented, not as a cruel abusive monster but as a parent–one who tries their best, makes mistakes, and does what they can to love their children and keep them safe.

There are days I feel like I don’t deserve my daughter because I’m mentally ill. There are days I feel like I don’t deserve her love, or her trust. Seeing parents with mental illnesses ALWAYS portrayed as monsters just increases these feelings. I want parents like me–and future parents too–to be able to see positive representations of themselves. I want people with mental illnesses to know becoming a parent IS a possibility, and that their mental illness isn’t any sort of indication that they are abusers.

 

REVIEW: HAMMERS ON BONE

I read this back in January, but I’m (slowly lol) trying to move my Goodreads reviews to my blog!

Hammers on Bone (written by Cassandra Khaw, published by Tor.com)

FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS 

CW: this book contains graphic depictions of violence, body horror, & children in dangerous situations.

THIS BOOK

THIS BOOK

I sometimes have trouble articulating what about the Lovecraftian aesthetic I so enjoy because my hatred for H.P. Lovecraft is unmatched. Stephen King gets close sometimes, to broaching cosmic horror in the right way, to making up for the lack of humanism in Lovecraft’s universe. But this book gets it so on the mark it’s incredible.

Cosmic horror is disgusting. It should be. It’s all the sinew and tendons and bones and viscera of life tossed about without regard to meaning. It’s all the effluvia that builds matter but without sense to it, without need for sense. And this book gets that so well…the writing is made of polyps and blisters and pus and it’s AMAZING. But what this book does is even more than perfecting tone: Lovecraft’s problem was he had no idea what human beings even were, let alone how to write them accurately or affectingly. Cassandra Khaw, however, does get human beings. She gets the space left open by Lovecraft–between cosmic indifference and the immense, inscrutable, self-flagellating yet pathetically persistent human will and that elevates the genre.

I want more of Khaw’s worlds because she is a master at crafting them. I highly recommend this book.

 

REVIEW: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER

My first official review here! I recently finished THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER (written by Theodora Goss, published by Saga Press) and I was incredibly impressed so we’ll start off very positively!!

 

FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS

Ok I’m going to be incredibly enthusiastic here: I LOVE THIS BOOK.

Like. I love it SO HARD.

I LOVE IT.

I want more in this universe. I want more of this series immediately.

MONSTER GIRLS! MONSTER GIRLS WHO LOVE AND PROTECT EACH OTHER AND COME TOGETHER TO STOP A SOCIETY OF MEN WHO TREATED THEM AS INHUMAN LIKE I LOVE THIS

I mean I could offer criticisms for sure. This book is set during the Victorian Age and while it does challenge many of the gender norms for the era (and even has characters questioning their own genders) I don’t feel like enough was done to challenge the racist notions that held so much sway. Although it’s meant to be written as an adventure novel, some  of the words used are somewhat harsh: a character refers to “wild savages” without challenging this notion, for example. So I would urge caution on that front, definitely. The cast is also not very diverse…while they’re all women, they’re all white women. I hope this is addressed in future additions to this series, as I think the racialized notions of the era can be closely tied to the sort of “scientific discoveries” undertaken by the villains.

Still, there is immense value here. THIS BOOK is the kind of book we need more of it. We need books about girls have adventures together, girls being friends and confidants, girls who are feminine and girls who aren’t, girls who are bold and girls who are shy, girls who are allowed to make mistakes, girls who are allowed to be all sorts of different things. THIS BOOK HAS SO MANY GIRLS HAVING ADVENTURES and I can’t stop screaming about how much I love it.

Like the girls in this story are so well-rounded, so well-defined, and they MAKE SENSE. What they do, how they think…it all makes sense within the context of the story and the period in which it is set. ALSO THERE IS LIKE 0 ROMANCE WHICH IS MY FAVORITE THING EVER TBH. No one is distracted by irritating boys being gross. The most important thing to these girls is each other and that’s so special I can’t get over it.

I hope there are more books coming because I am sad that I’m finished with this one and I need MORE IMMEDIATELY.

When You Don’t Like The Thing Everyone Else Likes

aka my biggest fear.

well one of my biggest fears.

I have a lot of fears.

Anyway.

I don’t ever want to be the contrarian who doesn’t enjoy things specifically because other people enjoy them. I hate the idea that popularity is an indication of a thing’s lack of value…mostly because that always seems to come with a very superior, holier-than-thou attitude that I generally can’t stand.

But this weekend I had the sad of experience of legitimately not liking something a lot of other people really like.

I tried to read “A Darker Shade of Magic.” Everyone had recommended it to me and the description made it sound like all of the things I enjoy. Fantasy! Multiple worlds! Magic! Kick-ass girl characters!

I made it to 40% before I had to stop.

If you could see my face right now it’d be very, very sad. Because I wanted so much to like this book! I wanted to be part of the love for it! I wanted to appreciate the art and discussion!

But. I. Couldn’t.

I couldn’t care about the characters. The settings were interesting but I couldn’t bring myself to care about them either. The pacing & plot were slow and again…I just couldn’t care!

So now I’m sad.

Maybe I’ll try again with the book. Maybe it’s my state of mind, or maybe some planet is in retrograde and that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to like the book.

Has this happened to you? Have you just…not been able to like something that is generally, near universally acclaimed?

A LIST OF ALTERNATIVES TO STEAMPUNK

I love steampunk of course but it seems like that’s the only era that gets retrofuturistic makeovers in fiction. The Victorian era is interesting but when we have the whole scope of history in front of us, I feel like we should expand our imaginations!

  1. Byzantine!punk: after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire began its ascension and expansion. Byzantine art, culture, and aesthetics are fascinating & underrepresented in worldbuilding!
  2. Moorish!punk: Al-Andalus was a glittering center of light and learning in Medieval Europe; the Moors ruled the Iberian Peninsula & imparted their architectural style that gave us wonders like the Alhambra. A Moorish version of Europe, of the future, is something I would read countless books about tbh.
  3. Venetian!punk: submerged cities, canals, an empire built on trade, saints, cathedrals, and more. Like “Casanova” (the Heath Ledger movie I can’t help but love) but with retrofuturistic innovations…so much possibility here!
  4. Baroque!punk: after the Renaissance transformed Europe, after the Protestant Reformation began, Baroque emerged as an emotional style of art, architecture, drama, and culture that attempted to stem the stern tide of Protestantism. Bernini is one of the most well-known Baroque sculptors…that aesthetic would be fascinating to explore in a fantasy setting!!
  5. Impressionism!punk: granted I’m not quite sure how you’d world build with this, but the dreamy, near-abstract aesthetics of Impressionism deserve more attention in fantasy

What sort of aesthetics or historical periods would you like to see more of in fantasy?

The Dead of the Plains

AN: Another former one-shot that now lies waiting for more. I’m bad at keeping things short. 

Content Warning: contains material suggesting sexual harassment and violence 

The Dead of the Plains

 

I

           He could see her, haloed, robed, with the blue-green sunlight pouring in through the stained glass window; she had that nervous, questing look of the coastal cities, of a person who’d never once been confronted with so much space, open and rolling, tinted, translucent, behind the Pioneer Maiden. And because he felt charitable he approached her, his shoes squeaking on the high-polished marble floor.

“You look lost,” he said to her and she started at his voice.

“Oh. Dr. Marion. I didn’t know anyone else was here.”

Of course she knew who he was. Everyone did. He’d made this school relevant.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just couldn’t help noticing you admiring the window.” The Maiden was one of the Seven Saints of the university– they’d broken ground here over three hundred years ago, made sure to bless this place with the courage they carried in their blood and bone and as the dead, they protected the school and its inhabitants.

She stared for a moment. Her face was cut hard, like most coastals–as if the sea had worn them down, leached the softness from them until they were just angle and bone covered by a thin breath of skin. Then she allowed a small smile. “It is beautiful. But I was mostly trying to figure the weather though. It changes so frequently out here and without much–”

He chuckled, cutting her off. “Oh yes, it’s something you have to get used to.” He looked over her head, out through the window. “Takes a while to get right. It looks like it may hail later today. Do you live on campus?” He supposed she was pretty if he looked at her right, but appearance wasn’t the point. They didn’t get many coastals out this way–usually only the scholars who couldn’t work molecular energy or any of that other atomic nonsense they got into back there. The earth-science oriented always made their way to the plains, doubly distinct–unlike their brethren back on the coast and certainly unlike those who’d grown up here. Outsiders. They were interesting. And not much piqued his interest anymore.

“Yes,” she said. “In the Barrett Building.”

He looked back at her. “You’re one of Dr. Elliott’s students?”

She nodded brightly. “Oh yes. She’s the reason I came out here, her work is absolutely groundbreaking! Even the best coastal programs don’t have her sort of experience on staff. I was really lucky she accepted me for the two-year program.”

A small stab of annoyance. He kept his face smooth though. Kept himself from frowning. Groundbreaking he thought with a bitter little internal laugh. Groundbreaking indeed. Now his interest was piqued even further.

“Only two years, huh? Then what?”

She gave him a curious look. It was almost…guarded, but then again a lot of the coastals looked that way. Careful and reticent. He figured it was the sea that’d turned them soft. “Well then I’ll go back home and finish up at–”

“Well maybe we can change your mind in the meantime,” he said, winking. “Ever done any work in hydrocarbons?”

“Not really,” she said. “Just in history you know?”

Another stab of annoyance. Did she know who he was. Did she really know?

“I suppose you need some experts out your way then,” he said. “What’s your name? You obviously know mine.” He gave her conspiratorial grin. “I know it’s gotta be hard, coming here. Unfamiliar. It’s always nice to make friends, right?”

That same guarded expression. More noticeable now. Like shutters slamming closed behind her gray eyes. Nothing at all like the locals, who were always so open and willing, who’d grown up knowing him as an expert, a savior with the advancements he’d made. A real pioneer, like the ones in the window. He’d grown bored of the fawning, he told himself. The coastals were more of a challenge and he loved a challenge.

“Sure,” she said after a long moment of quiet. “I’m Anna Markham.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand. She took it briefly and then stepped back, glancing out the window again, her forehead creased in concentration.

“Well it might get rough out there…do you want me to give you a lift back to the dorm? I’m nearly done here.”

She tilted her head. Considered. “Oh no, that’s all right. I have to go to the library anyway. But thanks for the offer. I appreciate it. I was very nice to meet you.”

And with that she turned and hurried off, her heels clicking on the floor.

He watched her go.

*

            The coastals didn’t like automobiles much. Dr. Marion supposed it had to do with their crowded cities, their ridiculous reliance on trains and subways. Out here, if you didn’t drive you weren’t worth your weight in grain; the space was such that it needed to be tamed. And whenever Dr. Marion felt off, he drove.

It did indeed begin hailing, just a bit after sunset. Dr. Marion left his office locked behind him and hurried out to the lot, relishing the harsh cold air and the sharp icy sting as he crossed the uncovered concrete expanse. He got in the car and keyed it on, the hydrocarbon combustion gutting and humming beneath him, a good rush of power. He thought for a moment about what he wanted–and then considered the next best thing.

A few moments later he pulled up in front of one of the apartment buildings where the junior faculty lived. He parked along the curb, leaving the car running so the heat wouldn’t sputter out, and he cut through the weather veil, heading for the sheltering overhang. At the front desk he asked if Dr. Littleton was available and waited in the dimly-lit lobby as the desk clerk (a student on work-study of course–the university had to best use its resources after all) patched a call through. In a moment the student turned back and said that Dr. Marion could go right on up.

Dr. Mitch Littleton was a former coastal. He still had the accent too, noticeable as he welcomed Dr. Marion into the apartment: flat and non-rhotic, reserved and cautious. They didn’t like emotion much, the coastals. Dr. Littleton worked in the Astronomy department, which was one of the reasons Dr. Marion had made the effort to cultivate him; Dr. Marion did enjoy his outsiders, after all.

And Dr. Elliott headed the Astronomy department so, perhaps, a bit of foresight had gone into Dr. Marion’s calculations.

“I hope I’m not bothering you,” Dr. Marion said as Mitch handed him a wheat-beer.

“Oh no, not at all. No plans.” He sat down on an old, beat-up leather chair and leaned forward, his light blue eyes nearly colorless in the overhead light. “Is it still storming?”

“Yes. In fact, that’s why I’m here,” Dr. Marion said, grinning. “D’you wanna go for a ride? I did promise I’d take you, the next time the weather turned.”

He could see a flicker of nerves spark through Mitch’s pale eyes and Dr. Marion took a sip of beer, waiting.

“Well, uh. Sure, yeah. Why not.” Mitch stood up suddenly, as if he needed to force himself into motion. “Thanks for offering.”

“No problem,” Dr. Marion said, putting down his glass. “It’s my pleasure.

*

            His father had told him once about the dead–the ones that’d gone first, to mow the plains down into submission and wrest from nature what humans deserved. They still walked, Robert Marion had told his son, those pioneering corpses. They’d sown the land with their blood, they’d made the wheat grow and they’d written storms in the sky. When asked where they’d come from, Robert Marion hadn’t known. It was so long ago, after all. But everything–a wide sweep of his arm–the universities, the roads, all of that–was because of their courage. And the dead especially loved the roads because their descendants could take them at impossible speeds, burning fuel behind them as they raced the weather.

“Remember that.” Dr. Marion did remember, he’d always remember. “Drive like the dead do, boy. Go fast as you can. This is ours, after all.” Another wide sweep. “This is ours.

*

            Once clear of the university, Dr. Marion pushed down hard on the accelerator and the engine responded. Beside him, in the passenger seat, Mitch Littleton’s strained face grew paler and paler as the road screeched beneath them. Dr. Marion laughed out loud, the sound mingling with the hail as it pounded hard on the glass and steel. He looked over at Mitch, enjoying the man’s obvious fear. There was nothing like this in those cloistered cities, clinging to the sea and messing around with careful science–they didn’t burn anything out there and they sent their refuse to the plains universities where men who knew what the world owed to them like Dr. Marion could break them down. Reshape them into something worthwhile, a pioneer, someone unafraid of the road and the rain.

“Watch it!” Mitch’s voice came high and clear through Dr. Marion’s triumph.

“Oh it’s all right, don’t be scared.”

No,” Mitch said in an oddly forceful voice as Dr. Marion pushed the car faster. “No, there’s going to be something, the air–”

“Stop it, there’s nothing out here but the dead, nothing else would dare–”

STOP THE CAR.” Mitch’s words bellowed against the hail, the rubber singing, the combustive roar and out of surprise more than anything, Dr. Marion hit the break, the car hydroplaning across the slick road and nearly sliding into the flooded road-side ditches. In a flare of anger Dr. Marion turned on Mitch, snarling at the younger man and his foolishness.

“What the hell was that about?” he demanded.

“Look,” Mitch said, calmer now.

Snapping his head back to the dash window, Dr. Marion squinted. Out of the hail stepped the largest stag he’d ever seen–a twelve-footer at least, antlers spanning the entire width of the road. It stood still in the wash of the headlights and with a muttering hiss of fear, Dr. Marion realized if he’d hit it, he’d be dead. The stags were built like stone–and some of the farmers said the big ones–the really big ones–weren’t stags at all, but ghosts of creatures killed a long time ago. And then above the beast the sky flared blue-white, like a blown transformer but they had those underground out here. Dr. Marion turned again to Mitch, who was tracing an arc with a shaking finger.

“What the hell–” Dr. Marion started again.

“Dr. Elliott was right,” Mitch muttered, more to himself. “They do respond to electromagnetic disturbances. Atmospheric even, the solar wind–”

“Stop it, that’s just a bunch of coastal nonsense,” Dr. Marion snapped.

Mitch turned to look at him and shrugged. The space between them had shifted somehow, the weight balanced in a new configuration. Dr. Marion didn’t like it. With much more vitriol than he wanted to show, he forced the car into a sharp turn and started back to the university, the stag glowing in the rearview much longer than it should have done.

*

            Dr. Marion dreamed about his father impaled on the massive antlers of a stag while the sky exploded in white light and a hundred thousand shambling corpses collapsed to white dust as a shockwave thick as concrete swept across the plains.

*

            It was the girl. Anna Markham. Her guarded grey eyes. Her dismissal. The fucking coasters. She’d refused him once. Well. It wouldn’t happen again.

*

            In the Energy department lounge Dr. Marion found a few of his hydrocarbon colleagues huddled over a newspaper. Coming in to see what the fuss was about, he realized it was the leading publication from one of the larger coastal cities. Dr. Elliott’s photo glinted in silver on the front page and the headline read EXPERT PRESENTS FIRST RELIABLE MEASURE OF SOLAR WIND FORCE.

“What’s that nonsense?” he asked.

Dr. Avery glanced over her shoulder. “Pet project of the Dean bearing fruit, I guess,” she said. “They’re happy about it over in Astronomy. A real party from what I heard.”

“She’s a fraud,” Dr. Marion said, sneering.

“Maybe. But they like her back east,” Dr. Carron said.

“Well that’s no surprise. They love their ‘experimental science’ out there. Solar wind is just a hypothesis, after all. There can’t be a reliable measure.”

“She keeps getting press like this, the Dean will want to expand the department.” Dr. Avery put the newspaper down on a nearby table and turned to look at Dr. Marion. She frowned. “Are you all right? You look pale.”

Dr. Marion pushed past her and didn’t reply.

*

            Halfway through his graduate seminar, Dr. Marion was feeling himself again. The students followed him with undivided attention and obvious admiration as he corrected a few equations. They were all plains locals–broad-faced and wide-eyed and friendly, with their honey-drawl accents and their well-practiced, well-supported mathematics. They’d grown up with oilman heroes, with the pioneering dead, with fast cars sudden storms and empty roads and land rolling out into forever. Dr. Marion chided himself internally for letting some little nobodies ruin his day; Mitch Littleton, Anna Markham, Dr. Elliott–they were from an inconsequential place; they were a scared people putting blind faith in bad science.

Eleanora Watts–one of the most promising graduates and a pretty girl with long blonde hair–sat up front. Dr. Marion watched her particularly–he’d been playing with her on and off but she wasn’t much of a challenge. She welcomed his overtures with her big-hearted laughter and gentle eyes. He’d grown bored of bedding willing students but perhaps it’d be just the thing to remind him of all he’d accomplished. Of all he was worth. So when the class ended he asked Eleanora to stay back for a moment so he could discuss her semester project.

“I was meaning to come see you about that anyway,” Eleanora said, grinning. “I was talking with some of the girls at the card club and they had some interesting things to say. So I thought it’d be worth looking into.”

“You and Violet?” Dr. Marion asked. The card club was one of the small student social houses on campus, usually reserved for the young women so they wouldn’t be too much temptation for the men.

“Well, yes, Violet was there too, and Rosalyn and Marietta but there were a few newcomers! Four or five girls actually, they come from the east and they’re fascinating. There’s so much I didn’t realize about the sea and from what they told me, in terms of energy resources it might be an interesting expansion–”

“No,” Dr. Marion said. Much louder than he meant it. Loud enough that even friendly Eleanora took an uncertain step backwards, forehead creased. Dr. Marion cleared his throat. “Sorry. I mean, I don’t want you to waste your time on dead-ends, Eleanora. They’ve got their priorities mixed up, the coastals. All that salt, I suppose. We need to keep our feet on the ground.” He gave her a winning grin.

“I suppose,” Eleanora said, still frowning. “You know…they said a few other things too.” Her voice was strange then. Unfamiliar. “It must be very different there. The way…the way they spoke about women and men and…” Eleanora trailed off and shrugged. “I suppose I’ll have to visit someday. Is there anything else, Professor?”

“No,” Dr. Marion said, his jaw clenched. “No, that’s it.”

And with a quick wave she turned and left the room.

*

           That night Dr. Marion went to visit his father’s gravesite. As a former Fellow, Robert Marion had secured his final resting place on university ground–the same cemetery that held the Seven Saints’ remains. Robert Marion had stayed buried though–Dr. Marion had looked, had waited, but his father seemed to be taking his sweet time in returning. The dead go fast, Dr. Marion thought, the first thundering strobes of a headache flaring behind his right eye. The dead must go fast, to claim and keep. Where are you, Father?

“Ah. I thought you’d be here.”

The voice came sudden and unwelcome. Dr. Marion turned to see Dr. Liesl Elliott standing at the cemetery gate, her arms crossed against her chest. She was a tall woman, her close-cropped grey hair neat against her high forehead. Quite unattractive.

“Can I help you?” Dr. Marion demanded.

“You know, we do mostly sea burials back home,” Dr. Elliott said. “So much land devoted to the dead…a very different sort of custom.”

“The dead gave themselves to tame this land,” Dr. Marion said, with as much venom as he could muster. “We keep them in it because they come back.”

“How do you tame a land, Dr. Marion?”

“You make it give to you what it owes,” he said. This woman was certainly dense. “You make it surrender its treasures. Its coal and oil and what it can grow for us, the space for roads and spread-out cities. Its industry. You make it give you that and then it’s yours. And if you do it right, you come back. Because even in death the land is ours.” The words weren’t all his–some came from snatched memories of Services his father had taken him too, invocations to the dead, the pioneers, the Saints.

Dr. Elliott’s face remained impassive. A silence stretched between them as the wind picked up and clouds grew toward the west, a massive dark bank of thunderheads.

“The weather is very odd here,” Dr. Elliott said. “I suppose it has to do with all the fuels you burn.”

Dr. Marion glared at her. “I thought your specialty was space, Liesl.”

She gave him a quick, sharp grin. “Well you have to see the sky to study space, Matthew.”

Anger rose in him with such a fierce and sudden heat he wanted to hit her. She didn’t seem to notice. In fact, she was still grinning.

“I would ask you to stop frightening my students, Dr. Marion.”

He couldn’t make words come he was so enraged and with a quick nod, Dr. Elliott turned on her heel and left him alone with the dead.

*

            Dr. Marion waited outside the card club closest to Barrett House. Sure enough, a little past midnight, a group of girls emerged, chatting and laughing happily. He noted some of the plains girls were wearing their hair up like the coastals did and the anger that’d set root in him since his conversation with Dr. Elliott bloomed like bile in the back of his throat. He watched the girls–most of them went left toward the Hydrocarbon dorms but three of them kept on, straight ahead, to Barrett House. He saw Anna Markham among them, a bit shorter than the other two, their harsh coastal accents undercutting the nearing thunder. A wind had picked up, hissing around the buildings and blowing detritus down the slick-wet campus roads.

He followed the girls toward Barrett House.

“The weather here is ridiculous,” one said. “They don’t even bother to chart it!”

“Well how could they, since it’s all their poison making it this way.”

“Don’t say that where they can hear you,” Anna Markham’s voice floated toward Dr. Marion. “It’s a religion to them here. The oil and the earth and their precious bones. I cannot wait until we get to go home.”

“Soon enough. Dr. Elliott is almost finished with the cycle. Then we can get out of this hellhole.”

“Oh did you hear about Dr. Littleton?” Anna, again. “He saw one of their stags! One of the remnants, from back when they bombed this place to flatten it. He said it was terrifying, but it definitely responded to the meteorite’s presence so that’s another path worth following.”

“How’d he catch one near here?”

“He didn’t. That hydrocarbon professor took him out on a drive. He said that was more terrifying than the stag.”

“I’ve heard such awful things.” The girl’s voice shuddered, dipped under the wind a bit and whatever she said next was lost.

“Yes well. Soon enough,” Anna said. “Finally we’re here.”

They’d reached the Barrett Hall entranced. Hurrying away from the pool of light that  bathed the dorm’s entrance, Dr. Marion hid back in the shadows as the rain finally broke and the wind moaned through across the deserted campus.

*

            Dr. Marion waited for Mitch Littleton and when he saw him exit the Planner Building he fell in step beside him.

“Oh, hello,” Mitch said. He smiled. “Thanks again for the ride. It was really interesting.”

“No problem,” Dr. Marion said, surprised at how normal his voice sounded. He’d been consumed with the thoughts of the dead–they were eating at him, those shambling bones. His father absent still, but the rest, the saints, the pioneers (the bombers the bombers the bombers) had dragged their bare-bones fingers across the wetwork of his brain and stayed lodged. He needed to do something about it because of course–that was how the plains worked, you did things you didn’t let the sky or the earth or the sea tell you what it needed. You told it, you tamed it, trained it, burnt it, hollowed it–and now these arrogant coastals were daring to invade, daring to spread their weak nonsense. Well. Dr. Marion wouldn’t allow it. “I actually have been meaning to talk to you. Did you leave a fountain pen in my car? I found one and I know it’s not mine.”

Mitch Littleton frowned. “I may have. I lose them all the time.”

“Well I’m parked just over here if you’d like.”

“Oh wonderful. I hope it’s the one I think it is, I brought it from home and I’d hate to have to send for another.”

Dr. Marion motioned to the lot. It was late and half-empty, most of the undergraduates gone for the day and only a few graduates clustered outside the academic buildings. Dr. Marion had parked as far from any hall as he could and he kept up a stream of inane chatter with Mitch, barely aware of what he was saying. When they got there, the sun had disappeared behind a thick black tide of clouds, low and muttering. Green flashes arced between them.

“Let me unlock it,” Dr. Marion said, reaching into his pocket and then as quick as he could, before Mitch could think or react Dr. Marion hit him as hard as he could in the face. Mitch stumbled back, pale eyes wide in shock and Dr. Marion hit him again, knocking him fully down this time, the crunch of nasal bone against his fist a sweet, soothing sound. He hit him a third time, a fourth, a fifth–and then he grabbed Mitch and dragged him into the car, propping him up in the front seat. Dr. Marion started the engine, a flood of force and life and power flooding through him, the wild strength of the dead and the land they’d tamed. Throwing his head back in a wild laugh, Dr. Marion peeled out of the parking lot and headed toward the open road–west, into the clouds, the green flare of lightning.

II

            It took a while before Dr. Mitch Littleton came around but when his head cleared enough for the pain to set in he realized that Matthew Marion had forced him into the car and was now careening down the empty road at a nearly impossible speed. It was like Dr. Littleton could feel the atoms of the car vibrate, could feel the contrasting forces pushing them together and pulling them apart.

            Oh thank God they never figured out how to use Uranium out here Dr. Littleton thought hazily as he tried to figure out what to do next.

All around the car the storm shrieked and roared, lightning–green?–arcing and tumbling between the clouds and spiking down from the clouds to the burnt earth below. All of this godforsaken wasteland was ash–they could grow their wasteful crops on a blanket of poor soil barely cloaking the destroyed land but it was all just an exercise in arrogance. The food they produced was tainted by what their precious dead had done and most of what they ate was brought in from the coast anyway. Dr. Littleton hated this place but it was worth his two years here–the new dean was intent on starting a Solar and Wind Department to access the few resources they had left here and Dr. Littleton and Dr. Elliott and the students wanted to do what they could to help. There weren’t many people who wanted things to change but there were enough to start. All that stood in their way were the fanatical holdouts like Marion.

            Marion. Dr. Littleton chanced glancing to the side. The man was driving with a wide grin, the muscles in his jaw pulled tense and working, his thinning hair damp with sweat and his right hand–the one he’d used to hit Dr. Littleton–was swollen and bruised. The green light flickered again. Solar, Dr. Littleton realized as he fought back against the pain. It’s not lightning it’s a solar. That means–

He felt the pull in him, the way the atoms pushed and rearranged beneath the sweeping magnetic flares. What had survived the destruction here had become new and frightening. Massive stags and fierce wildcats and herds of hybrid cattle waiting at the fringes for the first sign of weakness from the humans. And now the solar flare, the green rush of space-light singing through the storm, calling for an evolutionary response. The latitude here is perfect Dr. Elliott’s voice cutting through the haze of pain a perfect observation point. It’s ironic isn’t it, that this might be the beginning. Here, in this awful place.

“You’re awake.” Marion’s voice was uneven, jubilant, cruel. “You’re gonna pay, you goddamn weakling, you invader. You and all of your kind, coming here thinking you know this land, you know what’s best. I’ve had it. This university is mine and I won’t let you pathetic creatures try and transform it into some backwards seaside outpost!” He practically screamed the last word, pulling hard on the wheel to force the car sideways. Dr. Littleton slammed against the door, keeping quiet, waiting. Waiting.

“Don’t have anything to say for yourself, do you?” Marion laughed again, a desperate terrifying sound. “You and that girl and your fucking precious Liesl Elliott.”

“What girl?” Dr. Littleton found himself startled into speech.

“Anna Markham.” The words were shrouded in a thick veil of rage and hatred.

             Anna? “What’s she got to do with you?”

“She refused me. She started this, talking to my students, treating me like some sort of…of…fool. How dare she. You all need to be taught your fucking place.”

Dr. Littleton’s fear bloomed now into a messy panic. Oh God if he can get to her–

Anything Marion might do to Dr. Littleton was nothing compared to what he wanted to do to Anna.

              The worst of the men here treat women like they’re second class. Like they’re just another resource to be used and squandered. Dr. Elliott had warned them all about that horrid practice. The worst of the men will think nothing of trying to take as many girls as they can, do what they want. You must always be careful. You must take care of each other, and if you can, take care of the local girls too. This isn’t their fault.

And if Marion was allowed to return, he’d go after Anna.

Dr. Littleton closed his eyes, trying to shut out Marion’s rage, trying to focus as hard as he could on the movement of solar magnetism and the receptors, tried to do what Dr. Elliott had said could only be attempted if they met with real danger–tried to call the ravening revenants of this blasted place, tried to tell them as sure as he could through the shared universality of structure, of molecular movement and the symbiotic relationship between the earth and the sea, the sky, and every living thing breathing on or above or beneath–Dr. Littleton called, a ringing thundering clamor in his ears and then–

What the fuck!?”

Mitch opened his eyes.

The stag again. Maybe even the same one, standing in the middle of the road and it had something–Dr. Littleton could barely process it before Marion slammed hard on the brakes, the tires screeching in protest as he lost control of the steering and they careened sideways, the car sliding off the road and coming to an unsteady stop half-over a deep, rain-filled ditch. The water, Dr. Littleton noticed in one of those strange moments of clarity that come right in the middle of panic, was slicked with rainbow trails of spilled oil.

Marion turned, his face contorted with rage but Dr. Littleton avoided another blow and managed to land one of his own, slamming Marion up against the door. Marion collapsed beneath Dr. Littleton’s pressure and he pressed his advantage, hitting again and managing to get the door opened so he could push Marion out of the car entirely.

The stag still stood in the middle of the empty road, its expression steady.

Almost…interested.

Marion struggled to his feet.

“You have no idea what you’ve just done,” he said, spraying blood and spit as he screamed. “You have no idea!”

But of course, Dr. Littleton had every idea of what he’d done. He looked over at the stag again, at what he’d seen before.

Hanging in tatters from the immense antlers.

Dr. Littleton felt the whirl of magnetic light flare and flash overhead, pulling at the hairs on his skin, singing in tune with his own molecular hymn. The stag must have felt it too, must have known what Marion was. And slowly it started towards him, the ruins of a shriveled human arm in weather-stained cotton falling from its antlers like so much dust and air.

*

                The Electromagnetism seminar was fuller than usual this semester. Of course, it was the last one before Dr. Elliott and Dr. Littleton went back to the coast so the students wanted to be sure of getting a chance to learn from them. The Dean had promised more scholars would come soon, more solar experts and even some wind-farmers he’d convinced to come up from the barrier island research stations that stood between the coastal cities and the wider sea. Anna Markham was spending her last semester as a teaching assistant for the two professors and Dr. Littleton had to hand it to her–she’d gotten quite a few girls to sign up for the course, pulling away a good chunk of the Hydrocarbon consortium. One of the girls–a smiling, good-natured student named Eleanora was staying a whole extra year at school so she could change her concentration.

Afterwards, as always, Anna met with Dr. Elliott and Dr. Littleton in the office.

“Well I think this will go nicely,” Dr. Elliott said, her sharp face breaking into a sunshine-bright grin. “Your mother is especially pleased, Anna. And can we offer our congratulations for you to pass on to her? First Consul is quite an honor.”

Anna nodded. “Of course, she’ll be happy to hear it. I don’t think she ever forgave you for getting your doctorate before she did.”

“And did she mention the diplomatic mission?” Dr. Littleton asked. “I understand if it’s classified.”

Anna laughed. “She knows better than to tell me state secrets. She got confirmation a few days back.”

“Even better news,” Dr. Elliott said. “Now would you two mind finishing up in here? I have to meet with the Dean.”

Dr. Littleton and Anna waved her off and she shut the door behind her.

“You didn’t say anything to her,” Anna said after a moment of quiet.

“No,” Dr. Littleton said, glancing out the window. The sky was low again and heavy with clouds. “I don’t think it’s worth it. Do you?”

“No,” Anna said. “No, it’s…it’s better left a mystery I think.”

“Some of the diehard oilmen are saying they saw him…along with the other dead.”

“Maybe they did. Who knows. I don’t think…it matters, really.”

“No, not anymore.”

They stared at each other again and Anna grinned, looking down at her hands, a flush of color rising along the sharp ridge of her cheekbones. “Thank you, by the way.”

“What for?” Dr. Littleton asked.

She looked up again, met his gaze, her eyes the gray-green of home and shrugged. “You know.”

Dr. Littleton nodded once, then matched her smile.

“Let’s get started on this paperwork or we’ll be stuck here all night.”

 

Cosmicists

AN: Another project that started out as a short story until I decided I wanted to do more. I think that’s…sort of a theme? With me attempting to write short stories? Anyway here’s the short version that maybe someday will become something longer

 

The Cosmicists

They’re looking for someone named Geno.

Lesha waits less-than-patiently while Bobby and the old man go at it, teeth gritted, bared, and the air sizzle-singed between them. Lesha doesn’t know the old man well, only that he came over from Cuba in the fifties and apparently fucked a bunch of movie stars but Bobby seems intimately aware: he keeps hissing about vaults and breaches, half-assed code words because Bobby’s not up for creating a whole new language. That’s the problem with the low-level Cosmicists, Lesha thinks–their ambitions aren’t near developed enough to support their ideals. And the higher-ups take advantage of that.

Anyway, Geno. Evgeni, apparently? Lesha doesn’t have a last name. They’re in some cloister-like living room of a small dusty house in Palmdale and Lesha can smell the wick of the world burning outside in the sun-white air. The house–as far as she knows–doesn’t belong to the old man but its owner owed him a favor before Transposing and so here they are, free from listening ears because what fucking entity in its right mind would care about what goes on in Palmdale?

“He does it wrong,” the old man says, slamming his fist on a beat-up Ikea coffee table. He and Bobby are sitting on the sofa, not looking at one another as they fight. Lesha’s curled up like a cat in a moss-green reclining chair, waiting for Bobby to finish his business so they can go after this Geno–whoever the fuck he is.

“There’s no wrong,” Bobby spits. “That’s the whole problem with all your old-school bullshit. There’s no wrong!”

“You’re uneducated,” the old man says, artfully superior. “There was a way once and it did not die out when the papers were burned. It is still the way, whether you admit it or not. And Geno–he is the opposite. He is the–” the man pauses, thinking. “The miasma. The effluvia. He is all the waste and none of the matter. Stay away from him.”

Lesha frowns, picking threads. The old man tries to lace his words with venom–he does very well–but Lesha works in the Underneath after all so she knows deflection when she hears it. The old man’s warning Bobby but he’s protecting Geno. He thinks making Geno into a monster will force Bobby away but he doesn’t know Bobby very well.

“He’s in trouble,” Bobby says, voice low. Bobby never yells. He hisses and curdles and spits like a burning log but he never yells. “The flesh-bags back in LA–”

“That’s just what they told you,,” the old man says. “Your priesthood back in Los Angeles.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bobby says but of course the old man does. Because the flesh-bags couldn’t take down an architect but just the mention of them get Bobby going, even if the threat is invented. And Bobby is right in his rage because after all they murdered his brother and then ate the body right in front of him.

“I was there in the beginning,” the old man says.

Lesha is getting annoyed. “Where is he?” she asks, breaking the cadence of the argument and the old man turns to look at her with such shock Lesha wonders if he ever registered her presence in the first place. He stares for a long time, convincing himself she is real. Lesha doesn’t like it; she doesn’t like the familiarity of his gaze.

“What have you to do with this?” he demands. As if he knows her. As if she’s part of some subset that she knows damn well she isn’t. She’s singular.

Lesha narrows her eyes. It’s way past time for this to be over. She stands up and the room seems to shrink around her, the bones of the house turning gelatinous, molding to her and the sun overhead the cruel smirk of white sun: the old man’s mouth opens once and his face collapses in on itself, a weakness broached beneath the skin. All the air sucked out of the empty spaces.

“Fine,” he wheezes.

Lesha lets the room go.

Bobby doesn’t look at her but she can feel his relief. It roils, curls around him, smears like charcoal across the rise of his cheeks.

The old man gives them the name of a road near the Air Force Base. Bobby’s face flickers into a frown.

“That was closed down–”

“You’re uneducated,” the old man repeats.

“Come on,” Lesha says. The old man can’t lie to her. The road is there and so is Geno. “We’re done.”

Bobby closes his mouth and stands up to follow her out of the house.

*

Lesha and Bobby drive from Palmdale to North Edwards. The route is very nearly a perfect right angle: CA-14 to the vertex in Mojave and then taking the ray onto 58. It’s nowhere country, it’s government county, it’s lights-in-the-sky country. Conspiracy Land. Small stories made explosive by limited worlds. Lesha stare out the window into the white-blue and the dust.

“You didn’t have to,” Bobby says after they get onto 58.

“It’s fine,” she says. “He wasn’t going to give anything away otherwise.”

“Yeah but,” Bobby turns to her and squints like a movie star. “I know you don’t like to.”

“I don’t like to when it’s not my choice,” she says.

Bobby nods, turns back to the road. “That was your choice?”

“Of course,” she says. “What are you gonna do when we find him?” Because that hasn’t been decided yet. It couldn’t be decided in LA where the walls and the ground and the air and the atoms and all their particles have eyes and ears and pulpy listening wetness. Hell they didn’t say Geno’s name until they’d stopped in Ravenna to get the old man’s address. They’d met with one of Bobby’s Unformed allies who’d coughed up the info and it’d asked–with its glottal murmur–what they were looking for. Bobby didn’t dare lie to the Unformed, who’d saved his brother from what the flesh-bags had planned so he’d said a guy named Geno. some rogue architect. And the Unformed had flashed its strange iridescence across what you’d call its face and formed a glob of a word: evgeni.

Yeah. him.

So then in the car on the way to Palmdale Bobby’d explained to Lesha: the Cosmicist hotshots needed all the architects accounted for and if Bobby found this rogue then they’d pay him off big time and they’d cut loose some chains too. Lesha was in on it because she was bound to protect Bobby but she wasn’t ashamed to admit she was curious on her own. A rogue architect. You didn’t see many of those. It was worth it to ride along. But now in test plane country they can talk as freely as can be hoped on this plane of existence and Lesha wants as much from Bobby as he’ll give.

“Get him to come to LA,” Bobby says.

“If he’s rogue he won’t want to,” Lesha says.

Bobby squints again. It’s a habit he’s picked up from his dad. “Then we make him.”

Which is where I come along Lesha thinks. “They want him alive though, right?”

“Of course,” Bobby says.

“What kind of alive though?”

“Useful.”

The sentient kind then. Good to know. “And you don’t know anything else about him?”

“Not really. Just what the higher-ups gave me.”

“This some kind of test?”

“Like a rite?” Bobby asks, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah I guess. I’m half-in because of my mom but you know…they don’t do things halfway.”

Lesha nods, glances over at Bobby. He doesn’t do it for her even if he were available but she likes him. Before, she hadn’t ever thought men and women could just like each other, without all that messy shit rearing up and vomiting all over the sentiment. But maybe she’d watched too many movies. She knows what friend means, far and away from anything else and Bobby’s her friend. That’s good. That’s a good thing. Friends are better than lovers.

“Almost there,” Bobby says. They drive beneath an overpass and there’s an unmarked road branching off from the highway, so unused and dust-eaten it might not really exist at all. Bobby turns and overhead a plane hums in low, giant gray against the white, its immense guts churning fuel and spitting a dull muted roar as it puts down its wheels.

*

The dusty road goes nowhere until it ends at a fifties-looking motel, sticking strange out of the desert like a mutant bloom. There’s all the nostalgic trappings: atomic-age neon wrapping words INTERSTELLAR MOTEL in garish red and underneath VACANCIES in black words on a white face. Two stories with a red railing set around the second floor and blue doors interspersed with sun-occluded windows. There’s a cafe too, where the office seems to be and Bobby pulls up in front. The lot’s fuller than Lesha imagined, cars dust-blanketed and ticking hot.

Bobby and Lesha go into the cafe. Checkerboard floors and space-age tables, chrome and red leather. Designed before the world realized that the future would be a hell of a lot uglier than the bombs promised. Lesha and Bobby slide into a booth and Lesha scans the room: three men, two women–the two women sit together at the bar, talking in low murmurs; a man sits by himself at the end, a few seats down from the women; two men sit at a round table in the middle of the floor, one old and one just barely not a teenager.

A waitress who seems mostly human appears. “What can I get you?”

“Just coffee for me. Black. Lesha?”

She winces a little because Bobby used her name. His expression is untroubled, as if he doesn’t realize and she frowns, glancing at him before turning to the waitress. “Burger. Rare. Nothing but the bun.”

The waitress nods and moves off into the ether. Lesha needs to have a quick talk with Bobby now, in the quiet, because he should know better about her name, throwing it around carelessly among strangers.

“Bobby,” she says but he doesn’t respond. She frowns

“Bobby,” Lesha repeats. He looks vague, distant. “Bobby!” not caring how loud she is now because he doesn’t hear her and she’s starting to get a little scared. “Bobby!”

Stop it

The voice comes through the liquid and Lesha turns so fast her bones crack. No one’s looking at her but she can feel the attention of the two women focused on her, laser-precise and just as dangerous. They’re both youngish, one white and one black. Dressed in muted grays and greens, heads bowed together like they’re praying.

What the hell is going on?

You’re being worked into the pattern. And the laser-focus shifts to the man at the end of the bar, who’s toying idly with his coffee mug. He’s…he’s gotta make us all make sense or else whatever it is in here will tear us apart. What are you?

Excuse me?

We’re beyond niceties at this point, huh?

Lesha shifts uncomfortably. Bobby has that same vague look, and now he’s shredding one of the napkins he’s pulled from the sleek space-age silver napkin holder.

Guess so. My mother was a seed. My dad was a librarian. That’s a very bare-bones way of describing it but Lesha doesn’t feel like getting into more detail. I don’t think there’s a term for the offspring of that particular match.

No but maybe he’ll make one up another shift of focus to the man at the end of the bar.

I don’t need him to do that Lesha says, nettled. Is he the architect?

The architect?

An architect Lesha curses her own stupid mistake.

Yeah he is. You’re the hitman then. Hit woman. Whatever you’d prefer

We don’t want him dead

No but you’re not here because of what you want, are you?

They don’t want him dead either.

How nice of them

What the fuck are you two if you don’t mind me asking? Lesha of course has a pretty good idea but she wants them to say it. She wants them to have to answer. She keeps staring at Bobby but nothing she knows how to do can break him out of whatever the architect’s doing. No wonder the higher ups in LA want this guy–he’s spinning his own worlds here and that’s fucking atomic territory. Forbidden knowledge.

Star children of course. So’re they the attention now on the older man and the teenager. We’d been wandering and we found this place. Didn’t realize what it was.

 What is it?

A battery. A venus flytrap. Whatever you want.

Lesha wants nothing but to to be out of this nightmare. She stands up and finds herself almost gasping with relief that she can move and she crosses the hypernaturally still air to where the architect sits. Geno. She’d expected a white guy but he’s darker–Latino, probably, like the old man and that makes Lesha wonder but she’s not going to pluck that thread now. Geno glances over at her, gives her a mildly surprised grin. He has a nice-looking face: broad and a bit like a bush-league boxer’s but still nice-looking.

“Hi,” he says. “Are you gonna kill me?”

“No,” Lesha says, sitting down. “What are you doing to them?”

Geno frowns a bit. He reminds Lesha then of a kid who sat in the backseat of her eighth-grade science class–they’d all thought he was blowing off the whole thing because he never opened his mouth, never looked anything but gently confused until he disappeared one day and they learned he was really some kind of super-genius who’d been whisked off to a private school in Berkeley: Lesha had understood then– his confusion wasn’t because he didn’t get what the teacher was saying–his confusion was why any of it had to be taught at all. Why everyone else didn’t just know.

“I made this place,” Geno says, gesturing vaguely. “Because I knew my uncle’s guys wanted me to come home. But then people started showing up and I didn’t know what to do. They were people who…who needed help, you know? Who needed a place to stay to…” he frowns.

“Recharge?” Lesha offers.

“Yeah!” Geno grins, eyes bright. “Right. But when they came in I had…I had to make them fit or else…or else they’d be hurt I think. I don’t know why it’s not working on you but I guess it doesn’t hurt you either, so that’s good. Your friend though–if I just let him go I feel like he’d explode. He knows my uncle, doesn’t he?”

“Probably,” Lesha says. “We’re here to bring you back to LA.”

Geno sighs, looks down at his big hands. Lesha notices his knuckles are scabbed up pretty bad and there’s older bruising underneath the raw wounds. “I don’t want to go back.”

“Yeah I figured,” Lesha feels so out of her depth that it almost calms her. She doesn’t know what to do or if there’s anything she can do so she’s pretty much immune from making a mistake, isn’t she? Go on your gut. That’s a human thing. Instinct, voices from the bowels, some strung-out connection to a harder way of living, where dangers were easier to spot, where the wordless voices in your brain were easier to hear. “But I have a feeling if you don’t come with us then the next ones they send are gonna be worse.”

“You’re not worse?”

“Am I?”

Geno looks at her. “No, you’re not worse. You’re…you’re very singular, aren’t you? I don’t even have a word for you. I don’t have a reality for you. Maybe that’s why I can’t weave you into the pattern. And why it doesn’t kill you.”

“Sounds good to me,” Lesha says because as far as she knows she is a singularity but she never understood what that might mean in regards to the architects. The Cosmicists. And a small prick of worry threads across the skin of her neck, a flicker of dark in the corner of her eye that she’d never seen before. They sent Bobby here to bring Geno back. The miasma. The effluvia. All the waste and none of the matter.

Go careful Lesha hears one of the women’s voice hum close to her ear.

Yeah, I think I gotta.

Geno sighs and his face falls into a sadness that Lesha can’t describe, can’t plumb with words or understanding. He looks like a god who’s creations have started killing each other. Then he stands up and all around them reality wefts it weaves in and out and in and out, countless adjustments and too fast to process and then in a blink it stills and the air is heavy again, dust-scented and the cafe still exists but it’s drab now, decayed.

“Hey!” Bobby’s voice from the booth and then his head and shoulders as he jumps to his feet. The man and the teenager look like they’ve just been hit, staring stunned around them. The two women turn in unison to look at Lesha and she looks back at them, memorizing their faces. The black woman mimes a salute and the white woman winks.

Bobby barrels over, all electricity, ready for a fight. Lesha puts a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Bobby frowns, stars from Lesha to Geno. “This is him?”

Geno stands up. “You got me.” He holds up his hands in a mock prisoner’s prayer, waiting for the cuffs. “I’ll come quietly.

*

In their El Segundo digs the Cosmicists have a huge chart on the wall, like one you’d find at an eye doctor’s: big letters on top and then rows of smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s almost invisible. It’s a hierarchy because regardless of what Bobby told the old man in Palmdale the Cosmicists do have a way of doing things or, at least, a ladder of privilege–at the top is THE COSMOS because that’s the goal of course–the divine order, the blood-and-guts of all that is, the holy shitpile. And then the architects and the wrecking balls, folks with their hands all wet in the pulpy mess of matter. And then the newcomers: star children who bloomed in the desert, the dead woken up with space seeds growing in their skulls, the messengers come like god-eyed prophets. And then the humans who do their work the slow way: librarians, teachers, contractors–the hopefuls who believe enough servitude will get them elevated. And then the lowest, the Unformed and their cousins, things that aren’t pretty to look at, the real cosmic mess that the Cosmicists all profess to love and yet can’t stomach.

Bobby’s in the human muck: a contractor by trade although he’d been something else before the flesh-bags had eaten his brother. The flesh-bags of course aren’t on the eye-chart: they don’t deserve the space as the order goes.

Lesha isn’t on there either.

They wait with Geno in the antechamber, a room painted black around the chart and dotted with stars in phosphorescent paint. The floor is black too, giving a vertiginous endlessness all the more disorientating because it’s so obviously false. Inside the inner office Lesha can barely hear the higher-ups’ murmurs but she’s sure nothing good is going on. She keeps thinking about what Geno said: you’re…you’re very singular aren’t you and that damn chart: THE COSMOS.

The door opens.

There’s the woman in charge, a young big-haired big-boned beauty queen who–as far as Lesha’s heard–is the most powerful wrecking ball in Southern California. There’s Geno’s uncle, a big Ukrainian man named Andriy who isn’t an architect or anything special at all as far as Lesha can tell but he must have money. And then there’s an actual architect, an older woman with an utterly blank face–empty eyes and still mouth and not a wrinkle or pull to hint at any expression. She’s like an egg with a person painted on its shell. Lesha doesn’t look at her long. She keeps focus on Andriy.

Bobby stands up in a respectful show but Geno doesn’t move.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Martinez,” Andriy says to Bobby. “We knew we could count on you.” He shifts his attention to Geno. “Please, Evgeni. I don’t know why you felt you had to leave but we mean you no harm.”

Geno shrugs.

“You’re necessary for our expansion, nephew.” He’s talking like some medieval patriarch and with his neat white beard and severe blue eyes he might as well be. “For our success. The flesh-bags are growing vicious you know. We need you.”

Geno shrugs again.

Andriy sighs like a martyr and turns to Lesha. “Ms. Turner I thank you as well for your part in this. Thank you for keeping Mr. Martinez safe. Now. Perhaps you will excuse us for a moment? Mr. Martinez, you may follow us back into the office so we can discuss initiation rites.”

Bobby glances over at Lesha. Squints. He looks too much like his father when he does that but Lesha gives him a small smile and he follows the three higher-ups.

When the door closes Geno turns to Lesha and he looks sad again, so horribly sad Lesha can’t bear meeting his eyes.

“If you don’t run now they’re going to lock you up,” he says in a flat voice. “It’s why they wanted me back. You don’t fit their order. And they think I can use you to make a better one. They don’t want you dead but-” he lifts a hand to say they might as well.

Lesha wants to ask even Bobby but she knows better.

“Go to my father’s,” Geno says.

Lesha cocks her head, her heart hammering against her ribs. She knew this. She knew this was coming. She knew.

Even Bobby.

But of course he was never bound to protect her. Of course.

“Where?” her voice is a harsh whisper but it doesn’t tremble.

“In Palmdale,” Geno adds.

Oh. Oh yes. Of course.

Geno forces a smile. Lesha forces one back. And then she leaves the painted universe and stumbles back into the dirty white Los Angeles sun.

*

Lesha’s mother is still alive but she went home which doesn’t help Lesha very much because the human hooks her father inserted into her mother’s space-meat bind Lesha to this planet tighter than gravity. Lesha’s father is dead. He died years ago, long enough so Lesha’s memories of him are entirely fairy-tale in texture, glowing and soft-edged and smelling like cheap plastic toys. But before the man died he made good on his debts and the singular daughter he’d helped make was bound to protect the son of a squinting failed actor named Javier Martinez.

*

The old man in Palmdale isn’t surprised to see Lesha. He lets her in and locks the door behind him and Lesha can feel a veil settle around the house–faint and pricking at her but she can’t see the whole of it, the weave of it. And she remembers this is Geno’s father and Geno is an architect without precedent so the old man must be something special too.

“You were talking about me, weren’t you,” Lesha says as she sits down in the moss-green chair. “All the waste and none of the matter.”

The old man sighs. “Did he tell you my name?”

“No,” Lesha says.

“Gonzalo,” he says. He sits down with a groan and holds out his wrinkled brown hand. Lesha pauses but takes it. Shakes.

“Didn’t make much of an effort to keep us away from your son,” Lesha says. She is not thinking about the higher-ups in LA marshaling resources, directing their grunts to find her. She is not thinking of Bobby in his initiate’s robes with stars tattooed on the palms of his hands.

“I knew that if you failed, they’d send worse.”

“You knew Javier Martinez.”

Gonzalo sighs. “Javier wanted to be good. But he didn’t care what he was good at, you know? That’s a dangerous man.”

“My father bound me to his son.”

Surprisingly, Gonzalo smiles. “That’s what Javier believed, yes.”

Lesha frowns. “What do you–?”

“Come with me,” he says and he stands, walking into a narrow hallway with walls painted an almost black blue. It’s constricting, claustrophobic but it’s different from the antechamber in the Cosmicists’ office: less false, somehow, as if this is really an alleyway of nothingness, a place between creation. It takes longer to walk to the end than Lesha imagined it should and she remembers this man is Geno’s father. Finally they do get to a door, painted a cheery Van Gogh-yellow and Gonzalo pushes it open.

Lesha stares, all words and all thoughts that can be arranged and ordered into words rushed into a howling storm, a great and horrible scream of a song of a prayer, all the rawness that beauty drinks from all the terror that builds the dark all of it at once and she hears Gonzalo beside her:

“My friend,” Gonzalo says, “who Transposed and thus offered his body to the engine that is the universe left me this home because I did him a service. I burnt the papers that spoke of the old way, so Andriy and his cronies couldn’t read them. But Andriy invented a new truth, one that required collapsing his sister into the smallest point of existence and drawing the immense power from her moment of non-being. His sister. The mother of my son. And so when my friend asked for a second service I did it without question because it would hurt Andriy: a child who must be believed to be part human. A librarian he knew, who would be willing to claim her.”

Lesha cannot process the full weight of what Gonzalo is telling her. She’s still staring without words at the awful wonder writhing and burning in front of her.

“Your birth,” Gonzalo says in a soft voice–somehow still audible over the churning whorl and warp– “was a seed planted in the most fertile soil. A breath in an open hand. Your birth is that. You came from here and if they knew they’d want you more than they do now.”

“What…what is it?” Lesha asks. The colors are colors she does not know, she has no words for. The shapes and forms have no reference point in her brain they’re creating themselves new and new again, over and over and the voice, the voice is a roaring endlessness a small whisper, it’s enough to fill every corner of existence and yet it breathes here in the bedroom of a nondescript house in Palmdale.

“That,” Gonzalo says, motioning forward, “is the miasma. The effluvia. All the waste and none of the matter.”

Lesha finally turns. She’s crying. She can’t remember the last time she cried. Her palms burn as she feels Bobby’s tattoos, a hundred miles away. “But…” her voice is hoarse and sharp as broken glass in her throat. I came from there. “But…but it’s beautiful.”

Gonzalo grins and in his eyes she sees Geno, she sees the sadness and wonder.

“Exactly.”

*

The Interstellar Motel still stands in the desert, faded and dusty but real. Gonzalo and Lesha pull up in Gonzalo’s old Buick and the two women are standing in front of the cafe, speaking quietly to one another. When they hear the car doors click closed they look up and when they see Lesha they both grin. They are star children which means they are the left-behind babies of wanderers who chose to wear human skin for a piece and thus they wander too.

“You’re still alive,” the black woman says, looking relieved.

“I’m still alive,” Lesha says. There is a humming in her brain now, a single sweet note that’s awful too because everything beautiful is both.

“And the architect?” the white woman asks.

“Still alive. But we need to get him back.”

The two women nod. “What about your friend?”

Lesha does not allow herself to feel betrayed. After all she’d been a lie to him–the whole time. She’d had no bond on her and yet; and yet they were friends. They were friends. But once you get the rites then you’re a different level on the cosmic chart. A different person.

“He’s one of them now,” Lesha says.

The women nod. “So what’s the plan?” Like they’d known all along.

Lesha glances at Gonzalo and he nods. Grins. Sweet, sad–all at once, the ache and joy of being.

“We upend the order.”

The women smile and they go back into the cafe and Lesha and Gonzalo follow, shutting the dust-streaked door against the low red smear of sun.