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Shades Within Us
Excerpt

Porque el Girasol Se Llama El Girasol (Rich Larson)

Girasol watches as her mother shakes the entanglers out onto the hotel bed. They are small and spiny. They remind her of the purple sea urchins she was hunting in the netgame she can’t play anymore, because they had to take the chips out of their phones and crush them with a metal rolling pin before they left Las Cruces.

She is not sure she will be able to swallow one. It makes her nervous.

Her mother plucks the first entangler off the bedspread and peers at it. Her mouth is all tight, how it was when they checked in and the clerk passed her the little plastic bag.

“Peanut butter or grape jelly?” she asks, because she took a fistful of condiment packets from the breakfast room.

“Jelly.”

Her mother peels the packet open and rolls the entangler inside, globbing it in pale purple. Girasol takes it in her hand, getting her fingers sticky, and stares down at it. Ten points, she thinks. She puts it in her mouth.

She gags it back up. It pokes in her throat and she thinks she can feel it squirming a little, like it is alive. Her eyes start to water.

“Squeeze your thumb in your fist when you do it,” her mother says. “Squeeze hard.”

It takes three tries, and when it finally stays down Girasol is gasping and trying not to sob. Her throat is scraped raw. Her mother rubs between her shoulder blades, then takes the second entangler and swallows it. Her face twitches just once. Then she goes back to rubbing Girasol’s back.

“My brave girl,” she coos. “Brave girl, sunflower. Do you feel it?”

“I don’t know. Yes.”

For a few moments, Girasol feels only nausea. Then the entangler starts to prickle in her gut. Warmer, warmer.

“You should feel it.”

“I do. I feel it.”

“It should feel like a little magnet inside your belly.”

“I feel it.”

Her mother’s voice is stretched out like it might snap. “Okay.”

***

They test the entanglers outside, on the cracked and bubbled tarmac of the parking lot. Emptiness on all sides. Their motel is last in a ragged row of gas stations and stopovers, after which there is only the highway churning away to horizon. In the far far distance, they can see the Wall: a slouching beast of concrete and quickcrete latticed with swaying scaffold. Workers climb up and down it like ants; drones swarm overtop of it like flies.

Girasol has never seen the Wall in real life before. It makes her feel giddy. Her teacher only showed them photos of the Wall in class, and had them draw a picture of it on their smeary-screened school tablets.

While Girasol drew, the teacher stopped over her to ask, in a cheery voice, what her parents thought of the Wall. She gave the answer her mother told her always to give: their country was so good that bad people always wanted to come in and wreck it, because they were jealous, and the Wall was good because it kept them out. Then the teacher asked Fatima, and then Maria, but nobody else.

Girasol is still staring off at the Wall when her mother’s charcoal coloured scarf drops over her eyes. She feels her mother’s strong fingers knot it behind her head.

Excerpted from Shades Within Us, copyright © 2018

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Where the Stars Rise
Excerpt

Old Souls by Fonda Lee

The fortune teller’s nose is speckled with moles. A tie-dyed scarf is wrapped over her scraggly blonde dreadlocks. She takes my left hand and turns it palm upward, tracing its lines with glittery purple fingernails.

“Ahhhh. Hmmm. Yes.”

She draws a lungful of incense-thick air and closes her eyes, tilting her head back as if ascending to a higher level of perception. I study her face and focus on the fleshy touch of her hand on mine.

A grave robber glances left and right into the darkness before snatching at a glint of gold.

A carnival ringmaster with a waxed mustache spreads his arms to the crowd.

A man in a pinstripe suit stands at the docks and lights a cigarette, watching silently as casks are unloaded.

“I can see,” the fortune teller says in a breathy voice, “you have a long life ahead of you. There is a man with you, a handsome man. Your husband? Yes! You have children too—”

I pull my hand away. The metal chair scrapes back loudly as I stand.

“What are you doing? The reading isn’t finished!”

“Yes, it is.” I’m furious at myself. What would compel me to stop in front of a cheap street sign with PSYCHIC in big curly silver letters? To take a flight of stairs down to a cramped basement and shell out twenty dollars for nothing?

Desperation.

I sling my messenger bag over my shoulder. “You aren’t psychic,” I snap. “You’re a fraud. You profit from dishonesty. You always have.”

She stares at me, mouth agape. Her face reddens, darkening her moles. “Who do you think you are? You’re the one who came to me! No one asked you to come. Get out of here, bitch!”
I don’t need further encouragement. I barge through the curtain of black and white beads, past a woman in a long white coat and sunglasses sitting in what passes as the waiting room, and nearly knock over a lava lamp on my way out the door.

Back out on the sidewalk, I pause, blinking back the prickle of angry tears, the weight of disappointment so heavy it seems as if it’ll push me through the damp concrete. I zip up my jacket, debating whether to go back to the campus or to skip my last lecture of the day and return to my apartment. My roommate will be gone for the rest of the afternoon, and I’m in no mood to sit through Medieval European History. I start down the sidewalk toward home, arms hugged around myself.

“Old soul,” a voice calls from the stairwell. “Wait.”

It’s the woman in the white coat, the one who was sitting in the fortune teller’s office. She follows me with quick strides until she reaches me. Her hand shoots out and catches me by the arm. “You see the past, don’t you? Yours and others.” Her words carry a faint tremor of excitement. She pushes her sunglasses on to the top of her head, pinning me with her gaze.

For a motionless second, I stare at her face, into dark, ancient eyes. Then I look down at the pale hand on my arm, and a shudder of astonishment goes through me. We’re close, touching, but nothing happens, the way it does with other people. No images unspool in my mind like a surreal art house video. She’s the person standing in front of me, and no one else. It makes her seem unreal. An illusion of a person. Either I can’t read her or there is nothing to read. No past. No other lives besides this one.

I jerk back. My voice comes out high. “Who are you?”

She gives me a small, satisfied smile. “I am one of the Ageless. And I’ve been searching for someone like you.”

 

***

We walk into the nearest Starbucks. This being Seattle, there’s one less than a hundred feet away. She buys a caramel mocha for me and green tea for herself. She tells me her name is Pearl. She’s been visiting every self-proclaimed psychic in the city, hoping to find someone like me—someone who can see past lives without trying to, the way artists see colour or perfumers detect scents.

“Most psychics are frauds,” she explains with an off-handed shrug as we bring our drinks to an empty table, “but once in a while, I find someone who can make reasonable predictions of the future by seeing the past, the way you do.” She glances at me. “It’s a rare ability.”

Not one I’m thrilled to have. I study my mocha. “Do you have it?”

She leans toward me slightly. “No. I don’t have your clear sight. I can only sense things about people, including those who can see better than I can.”

“Who—what are you?”

She takes a long sip of her tea. “Death and rebirth, death and rebirth. So it goes for everyone, except the Ageless. I have had no other life but this one. I will have no other after it.”

I’m silent for a long, baffled moment. Everyone I’ve ever met has past incarnations. It would be hard to believe Pearl if I hadn’t seen it—or rather, not seen it—for myself. I study her face.
She has smooth Asian features that make it hard to judge if she’s twenty- five or forty. “How old are you?”

She crosses her legs, resting her chin on her hand. Her gaze grows distant. “Five hundred and thirty-some is as far back as I can remember. I’ve lost the exact count.”

I suck in a breath. I imagine what it must be like to live for so many years without dying, to have the gift of so much time. As my eyes widen with awe, Pearl’s mouth tightens. “Trust me,” she says, “a life as long as mine isn’t something to envy.”

“But you must have been through incredible times, seen incredible things.”

A shadow crosses her face. “What I’ve seen is those I love die, while I live on, never changing.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. An awkward pause rests between us. Quietly, I ask, “Are there others like you?”

“A few.” She doesn’t say more. “Enough about me. You must be wondering why I want to talk to you.” Her lips curve in a small smile that is beautiful but cool, like the smile on a marble bust. “I think we can help each other. You are searching for something, just as I am. Tell me, what are you searching for?”

I lower my gaze. Customers bustle around us as the baristas call out orders. I’m oddly unsurprised to be sitting in a coffee shop having this unbelievable conversation with a woman even more unusual than myself. Still, I hesitate. I tried to talk about this to my parents when I was ten years old. They put me in therapy until I said what the therapist wanted to hear and was proclaimed “better.”

My voice falls to a whisper. “I want to know how to break the pattern.”

Excerpted from Where the Stars Rise Copyright © 2017

The dataSultan of Streets and Stars by Jeremy Szal

The alien slams me up against the station walls so hard I think he’s broken my spine. If I didn’t activate my arm-bands of my skinsuit in time to cushion the impact he might have. I try to squirm out of his grasp but it’s like pushing against an iron wall.

I throw my hands up. “You win. Just let go off me.”

His grip tightens. “Try to run again and I will snap your neck, Bohdi.”

I’d planned on darting away as soon as he released me, but now I think the better of it. I’m a short, scruffy guy and it won’t be hard for him to catch me. He releases me, and I slide down the wall, raking in gulps of air.

“Humans.” Zuqji Sma shakes his head. Like most Ghadesh, he’s two metres tall with a stocky body. Thick tubes snake in and out of his carapace-like armour, recycling oxygen to match the methane atmosphere of his Dyson sphere home. But we’re both far from home in Anacet Station, a place built in the mined-out husk of a metallic asteroid. Most of the folk here are humans, but there are a few Ghadesh wandering around. The cosmos rolls the dices, and of course I bump into him of all people.

“Let’s have a talk, shall we?” Sma pokes me in the chest. He’s cut himself from the sharp edge of the metal wall, and a few droplets of his green-blue blood spatters on my chest.

I shrug.

We go to a Lebanese shop that sells Arab-style coffee. The turbaned owner does the physical work while his djinn performs the electronic activities, flipping the machine on and rotating the dispenser. Wispy smoke floats up to the mosaic ceiling. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t use djinns to assist us. A kilometre-long starship glides by our viewport, a testament to human engineering. Humans might have designed it, but djinns built it.

The djinn-bot arrives with our cups of steaming liquid blackness. The stuff is overpriced, and somehow I doubt Sma’s going to be paying for it.

“You wanted something?” There’s no way in hell I’m catching my ship now, so I might as well humour him.

“Of course.” Sma doesn’t touch his coffee. From the way he sits, you’d think his spine was made of steel. For all I know about Ghadesh biology, it probably is. The one thing I do know about Ghadesh is that their armour shifts in colour to match their mood, and right now his is only starting to dial down from pitch black. “I hear they’re making new djinns on Earth, yes?”

“They’re always making new djinns.” There’s no reason I have to make it easy for him.

Sma’s rectangular pupils narrow to cold grey slits. I’ve never noticed just how grey they are. “I mean high-tier djinn. Ones that can pilot ships without any assistance. You would know about this, yes?”

“They are,” I respond. “They won’t be on the market for years.” You can almost see the I’ve got you now twinkle in Sma’s eye.

“Now that is where you come in.”

“I’m not going back to Istanbul,” I tell him. “Not after what happened.”

“What exactly happened down there? The GalaNet has been rather quiet.”

He probably knows, but I tell him anyway. We’re always attempting to improve the djinns, raise their tier so they can juggle together activities and for longer. We were so, so close to crafting djinn capable of deep space asteroid mining. We’d unveiled them in a conference room to investors in the business.

Only there’d been a malfunction and the djinns had gone rogue, killing a dozen people.

I’d been the dataSultan, one of the lead programmers.

We shushed it up afterwards, but my superiors recommended I skipped Earth and waited for things to cool down. The families of the deceased were powerful people with deep pockets and shallow mercy. Still, it’s unlikely they’d chase me across space.

Sma leans back on his seat, the divan creaking under his weight. “Hmm. Fascinating. Very fascinating. You really did mess up, didn’t you?”

“With a dozen people dead and a bounty hanging over me? You could say so,” I respond.

“Well, I have a proposition for you.” The sarcasm seems to have gone over his head. “I want you to go back to Istanbul and get me one of those djinn-7s. They should be sorted out by now, yes?”

“Probably, but I won’t be going back there,” I tell him.

His eyes narrow again and his armour darkens. “You act as if you have a choice in the matter.”

“I’ll damn sure say I do.”

A sudden blur and I glance down to see a pistol folding out of his metal sleeve. Thousands of miniscule metallic bits scramble over each other like glossy black ants, coalescing to form a revolver pointed straight at me. Unnervingly, from this angle he’s got it aimed at my crotch. I make it my goal of never having pointy things prodded in this general direction.

“Never had a coffee date go this badly.” I do my best to smile as I pretend to inspect my drink. “Say, what exactly did you put in this?”

Sma is not amused. “You’re going to get that djinn, regardless if you want to or not.”

“Why me?” I demand.

He taps the veins on my forearm. It’s a challenge not to recoil from his blood-warm touch. “The djinn-7s are synced to your DNA. You have those implants that allow you to enter the systems. Do not try to fool me; we both know you’re the only one who can do it.”

Excerpted from Where the Stars Rise Copyright © 2017

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The Sum of Us
Excerpt

The Dunschemin Retirement Home for Repentant Supervillains by Ian Creasey

Here we go again. Mornings in the Home always began the same way. No matter what time Stafford reached Anarcho’s room, Anarcho was invariably awake, waiting for Stafford to open the chintz curtains. But he never reprimanded Stafford for being late or wasting time. In the old days, Anarcho had been as impatient as all supervillains, ever eager to pursue some cunning scheme. Now there was no rushing and shouting and clanking; no messy experiments left bubbling overnight; no lairs to build or dungeons to dust.

Today’s tasks were more homely. Stafford pulled back the duvet to reveal Anarcho’s shrunken frame, tinged green from over-exposure to tachyons. First came the bathroom routine: toilet, sponge wipe, shave, and so forth. Then the mechanical maintenance: eye lube, claw sharpen and polish, exobrain defrag and reboot. These prosthetics were all obsolete. Anarcho was the Home’s oldest resident, his life convoluted by time travel.

“Attention all residents,” the intercom blared. “Please report for roll call in the lounge. This is not a drill; the perimeter alarm has sounded. Urgent roll call!”

“Sounds like mischief,” Stafford said. “I presume it’s not yours.”

He didn’t expect an answer. For form’s sake, he checked the control panel on Anarcho’s wheelchair but saw nothing. It had been years since Anarcho’s last caper.

Stafford couldn’t decide whether he missed the old days. Back then, life had felt too frenetic, with a never-ending list of chores; every new plot always needed its own elaborate control room, destruct mechanism, and escape tunnel. Yet he’d enjoyed the craftsmanship of building vast laboratories and sinister machines. Now the chores were mundane: the new enemy was incontinence. Had all those intrigues been for naught?

“Let’s get you down there,” he said.

He settled Anarcho into the motorized wheelchair and draped a tartan blanket over his knees. The blanket lacked even the most basic hidden enhancements: no blast-proof shielding, no explosive tassels, not even a hypnotic fractal pattern on the reverse. It was merely 100% wool, soft and warm.

The Home bustled with activity as the residents and their carers converged on the lounge. Stafford ducked aside as Madame Mayhem and Miss Rule zoomed past on their hoverchairs, racing each other along the corridors. Proceeding more sedately, Stafford and Anarcho were the last to arrive.

“Hurry up!” roared Betty Beast. “I’m missing breakfast for this.”

“Oh, I’ll get us some breakfast,” said Doctor Havoc. With a well-practiced dramatic gesture, he conjured puffs of blue smoke from his hand. The clouds of nanites drifted through the kitchen doorway, returning with toast and mushrooms. One blue globule collided with a hoverchair and tried to drag it back, to Madame Mayhem’s furious protests. She retaliated by stealing slices of toast before the smoke took them to Doctor Havoc. In the tussle, stray mushrooms fell to the floor, where three of Legion’s tiny scuttling avatars scooped them up.

“Hush!” cried Matron. “Stop playing with your food.”

A tall, spindly woman dressed in an old-style black-and-white nurse’s uniform, Matron seemed to glare at everyone simultaneously. “Please answer the roll call, and I’d better not hear any cackling. Phipps will physically check that everyone’s here. No decoy holograms!”

Stafford said, “What do you reckon, Anarcho—is it an escape or a kidnap?” Some supervillains couldn’t bear retirement and returned to the metropolis like grizzled rock stars craving one last comeback.

Matron called out, “Narinder Atwal.” “Here,” said Doctor Havoc. “And hungry!”

Phipps, Matron’s diminutive assistant, touched Doctor Havoc’s shoulder to verify his existence. Coincidentally—or not—a blue puff of smoke swirled into Phipps’ face and made him sneeze.

“Sophie Béranger.” Matron only ever used civilian names; she insisted that every retired supervillain must abandon their alias along with their antics. While no-one openly defied her, many surreptitiously clung onto their monikers and misbehaviour.

“Here,” replied Madame Mayhem, her fingers idly stroking a memorial necklace of fangs from Fidosaurus, her deceased pet dinosaur.

The roll call continued until it reached, “Russell Fletcher.” Stafford waited a few seconds, then pinged Anarcho’s exobrain.

“I’m here, wherever this is,” Anarcho said, his voice low and hoarse. “It ain’t heaven, that’s for sure,” said Doctor Havoc.

“Come sit on my hoverchair, and I’ll show you heaven,” Madame Mayhem purred.

The supervillains dissolved into giggles until Matron raised her voice to resume the roll call, which ended with no absentees—or none detected.

“That’s reassuring,” said Matron, addressing the group. “But what set off the alarm? I’ve checked the video, and most of the outside cameras are obscured. It’s remarkable how fast the ivy grows in our grounds. Quite remarkable indeed.” She stared at the motley reprobates. “If anyone knows anything, please enlighten us.”

“I know why galaxies collide,” said AlphaMega, his bass voice augmented with infrasonic rumble.

“Yeah, your huge ego turned into a black hole and sucked them in,” retorted Madame Mayhem.

“If you can’t be helpful, be quiet,” Matron said. “I’ve warned the authorities about the perimeter breach. If anything happens outside and it’s traced back here, there’ll be consequences.”

Excerpted from The Sum of Us, copyright © 2017

The Gatekeeper by Juliet Marillier

He stalks up the long hall, each step a small poem of feline grace. An early morning hush lies over Autumn Gardens. Outside, the first birds are calling. Inside, there’s a distant rattle of crockery. He passes the doors, many doors, each slightly ajar. The residents lie still under their quilts, wrapped in memories that will vanish when they wake.

Ah! Feet in slippers, here by the wall. A woman makes a shuffling progress, clutching the rail. He slips away, shadow-quick. Her ending will come soon enough; it is not for him to trip those faltering feet. His task is not to deliver death. Only to witness. Only to guide.

Good smells ahead. The kitchen is at the far end of this hall—he is not allowed to enter. But he eats well. His man feeds him in their safe place, every morning after they wake, every night before they sleep.

There was a time before: starving, snatching, devouring whatever scrap might come his way. Beetles, worms, smears of stuff in sharp discarded cans. It was a time of fear, of fighting, of running, always running. A big tom tore his ear. A hurled stone bruised him. But he got away. Over and over he got away.

A baying dog chased him. He caught his foot in a fence, hauled himself free, ripped flesh from his leg. There was blood. He hid under bushes. Licked and licked, but could not make it better.
A man came with cheese and meat and a trap, and he was caught. He fought the box that shut him in. He bit the hands that touched him; terror made him strong. But they were gentle hands, lifting him out, tending to his wound. He knew, for the first time, the feeling of a full belly.

That was then. This is now. The man—his man—brought him here, made him his own safe place. A warm bed, sweet water, good food. He has a friend now, and a home. He has a solemn calling.

 

***

 

Autumn Gardens Eldercare Staff Meeting: March 2, 2010
Agenda

1. Action items from last meeting
2. April visit by Minister for Seniors: planning
3. Staffing issues
4. Therapy cat for Dementia Ward – protocols
5. Any other business

 

***

The morning rounds bring him to the sunny room where the residents of Ward D now sit in their chairs. Some stare at the television, a flickering parade of images, a buzz of sounds. Some nod in half-sleep. It is nearly time for the wheeled trolley to bring tea and biscuits. He knows who will feed him crumbs and who will look through him, not seeing.

“There you are, Piff.” Kind hands, these, reaching down to stroke him gently behind the ears. The touch contents him. He has many names at Autumn Gardens: Stripey, Honey, Thistle, and Orlando. To his man, he is Hamza. Those names are unimportant. He is Cat, servant of Bast.

Here is the old woman who smells of flowers. He remembers a garden where he hid once, a place all tangled foliage and deep hollows; the same smell was there. He stations himself by the woman’s feet, waiting. The trolley creaks in; there’s a tinkle of crockery up above.

“I’m going home this afternoon,” the flower woman says. “Kalgoorlie. My son’s coming to pick me up.”

“That’s nice, dear.” The trolley moves on.

A generous supply of crumbs descends. They are the kind he likes best. Rattle of cups on saucers; muted voices. More crumbs here and there. He wanders, grazing.

The trolley creaks out again. He settles, comfortably full, to drowse the morning away on a sunny window seat. His senses tell him there will be no further work until night falls and it is time to warm his man’s feet. But soon, very soon, the call will come.

Excerpted from The Sum of Us, copyright © 2017

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