Planets Project: Mars

Sisters

They doubled the guard on the nursery in the wake of the attack, though they know it is too little, too late.

The remnants of the royal clutch lie in the middle of the hatchery. One egg is bright and opalescent, rainbows shifting across its surface. The other is dull and grey, blighted promise across its mottled surface, hard and cracked in places, spongy in others.

All their hopes rest on the egg that survived, whole and unscathed, now that the Queen… no.

Don’t think of it. There is always a Queen. There she is, in the egg.

The priests chant prayers every day. The masses assemble at the mountain’s base, to sing and weep and plead. The broken, fragile magic of all those voices are tossed up to the summit by dry and dusty winds.

They want to protect the Queen egg, lock it away deep underground. Surround it with steel and lasers and traps of all kinds. But their kind has always quickened in eggs bathed in sunshine and drizzled with starlight, rocked by wind and washed in rain.

So they wait, anxious and always hovering.

And one day, the egg trembles, birthing pangs running in wavelets all over its surface. The nurses strain towards it, the guards step forward, but the priest stops them with an upraised hand.

No, the young Queen must do this on her own. If she is to be great, she must learn to be alone.

That is also the way of their kind.

The egg splits open; a lacy arm, glistening with fluid, emerges. The nurses sob. Delicate claws rip again and she unfurls. She stands there, shimmering opal and tall and wise, looking around with her multi-faceted eyes.

The guards shout and their wordless rapture is carried by the winds to the people down the mountain. The rejoicing begins.

The new Queen is an island of stillness in the midst of it all. She reaches out a hand, softly, slowly, as if breaking through a bubble and into this new world. Touches a pedestal with a withered plant at the top. Under her fingers, a new flower unfurls and reaches for the sky.

The priest sighs, drops his head into his hands for a moment as he masters himself. Then he calls out, loud and clear, “The Queen lives! The Queen is whole! The Queen is power!”

And while the nurses rush to their new mistress, the priest beckons to a guard. The second egg, the one that almost didn’t make it, rocks urgently, futilely. The thing inside is alive, a writhing shadow inside hardened translucence.

“Poor youngling,” says the priest. His voice is kind, but firm. “Cast it into the ravine. Put it out of its misery.”

The guard nods, stoops. He is unnoticed by all as he covers the egg with a black cloth and hastens out a back entrance. A short tunnel later, he stands on a ledge, looks down at the steep drop. The egg in his arms trembles more violently, as if the deformed thing inside knows what is about to happen.

The guard thinks he should say something, something to mark the end of this creature, whose life is over before it even begins. This creature whose womb is also its tomb.

He cannot think of a single word, so he mutters a general blessing, and drops the egg.

He does not stay to watch it fall, hurrying back to kneel at the feet of his new Queen.

*

The egg shivers at the bottom of the ravine. Its fluttering attracts the attention of a bird, one that swoops lazily down to investigate. It stands on the egg, cocks its head. Gives an experimental peck, or two.

The leathery shell is tough, but the bird’s beak slices through. It dips its head for yet another peck, but sounds explode nearby. The people are setting off firecrackers, but the bird is already startled and away, thoughts of the egg driven completely out of its skull.

The egg lies still as if the creature within gathers its strength. Then, with one lunge, two sticklike hands emerge from the rip and push. With a gloop and swish, the shell gives way.

And the Queen’s sister tumbles out in a spreading pool of thick, foul-smelling liquid. She is the color of curdled milk and grey cobweb. Strands of mucous stick to her short buzzed hair and dead-looking skin. She tries to move, to stand, but ends up collapsed. Her limbs shake; she can barely control them.

She grabs for a straggly thornbush, to pull herself forward. The hardy plant withers to brown and crumbles to dust and vanishes between her fingers.

The sister rests. She knew that it is wrong for her to smell so, to look so, to affect the world so.

She could die right now, under this burning sun.

But she wants to live and after a while, she pushes herself forward, slowly, painfully, on her belly.

She leaves behind her a trail of dead grass.

Planets Project: Earth

Terra Forma

They wondered about their youngest, born as he was in the maelstrom of a supernova, amidst the debris of an exploding star. His birth, thought Papa, had given Terra an unfortunate taste for garbage.

“If only he would stop playing with byproducts,” he sighed, sending gusts of hydrogen and plumes of helium across space. The plasma of his stellar vessel roiled in agitation. “Why can’t he turn from his dratted rock-marbles and look to the stars?”

“They all began with rocks,” soothed Mama, her dim-yellowness steady and calm. “He’ll move on to greater things, like Gravitas and Cerulaea did.”

“He’s too old for such playthings now,” grumbled Papa, but he conceded the point. Gravitas and Cerulaea made him proud, but they concerned him, too.

Gravitas had grown big and dark and silent. His very presence sucked everything toward him. He swallowed up light and laughter and words, giving nothing back. Papa wished he knew what had happened when Gravitas had gone a-journeying.

And Cerulaea, their brilliant, high-strung one, burning ever so brightly. He was afraid that she’d wink out too soon, the way she poured herself into her work.

Yes, they were doing great things in the universe, his older two, pushing the limits the way the children of others didn’t.

And then there was Terra. Little Terra who—his father guiltily thought he shouldn’t even think such things about his own son—was more matter than energy, almost falling off the lower end of the chart. As if he almost was one of the dull material things he played with so incessantly.

***

“Are you ready?’ Terra glimmered with mischief. It shone out of the thin brown-roughened body that he had kept for longer than a star cycle. Not done, thought Papa, indignantly, ready to lay down the law, but he caught Mama’s look and subsided.

“Yes, yes,” said Cerulaea, with a toss and a fidget, trailing sparks. Even in her stripped-down form, the heat emanating from her was almost unbearable. Yes, Papa needed to talk with her, too. “Can we get this over with? I have work to do.”

Gravitas said nothing as usual, wedged into a corner, separate and shadowed. They didn’t look upon him—no one did these days—but they felt the drag of his silence on their words, the way their energies streamed towards him.

In my house, too! Papa twitched a warning flick of energy at his oldest child. Gravitas took the hint and the headache-inducing pull released.

Cerulaea was still talking as Terra opened the portal with a flourish and they all passed through. “I mean, we all cut our teeth on this play-rock. After my electromagnetic experiments, there’s not much left to do on this rock, save smash something into it and see what happens—not that Gravitas left me much to work with anyhow—oh! Oh.”

She stopped, speechless for once.

Where once there had been just rock and ice and metal, there was now…. other stuff. Delicate, growing stuff that tickled their senses in new ways: thousands of shades of yellow and green, intricate traceries in patterns never before seen, complex molecules that flowed, wafted, interacted, tingled.

As Terra scampered around in glee, like a child half his age, calling out names and explaining processes in that breathless way of his, Papa knew only one thing:

His son, the one who played with trash, was special. He had done something not great, but small. Beautifully, wonderfully small.

As they gazed in wonder, Gravitas spoke, for the first time in a long while. His voice fell across them all, suffocating their speech, but for once Papa didn’t mind.

“This,” said Gravitas, slow as rock cooling, “this must be protected.”

No one answered him. But they didn’t have to.

Planets Project: behind-the-scenes

Yesterday, I shared a flashfic inspired by the planet Venus.

What strikes me the most about Venus is the contrast between the ideal and the reality. This planet can be seen as a bright object in our sky; it is named for the goddess of love and beauty. But when we investigated the planet, we discovered a hellish place, one that could kill you in several different ways (the pressure, the temperature, and the acidity being three I can name off the top of my head).

From that contrast sprang the main character, indeed the very plot, of She Walks in Beauty.

Beauty–and the dark side of beauty–is a theme that has cropped up at other times in my work. The most prominent other example is “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World”, one of the short stories in my broken fairy tale anthology, Shattered. There’s something about the “fairest of them all” fairy tale trope that calls to me.

Planets Project: Venus

She Walks in Beauty

The last time she walked in the gardens, there was a child.

It shouldn’t have been there. It should’ve been cleared out of her way, the way everyone else was.

She trod empty marble corridors to the outside, blinking in the hot sun. Small stones crunched under her feet–her own footfalls had long been her only companions. Water tinkled in a nearby fountain as she entered the walled garden, and lifted the light veil she wore over her face.

On her left, an unwary bird fell like a rock from a tree. Once she would’ve wept, but she’d been away from the sun and the wind for so long she couldn’t feel sorry. A bird was a small price to pay for the caress of sunshine on her cheek and the kiss of wind on her forehead.

And then she turned towards a rustle, and saw the child.

*

No one could explain why the child had been there in the first place, why its mother had not kept it close, why…

They asked all the wrong questions. It wasn’t why the child had been there but why they had agreed to let her out in the first place.

She would never give in to her weakness again.

From behind the curtain that separated her from everyone else, she sent them away. With her own hands she closed the shutters and dragged wall hangings over them, shrouding her rooms in darkness. She tied bells to her ankles and wrists, to warn of her approach. And last of all she took the dreaded veil, the widow-veil, all heavy and black, and draped it over her head and face.

No one would look upon her again.

*

She lived in dimness, like a shade caught between life and death, light and dark. She read many books and played the sitar and paced a tiny enclosed veranda. She learned to see life—such as there was in her apartments—through dark gauze.

The silence that surrounded her was so deep and devoid of life that the chimes at her ankles were only a bit of foolish bravery, the sounds high and breathless, soon swallowed up. Nothing else penetrated that silence, not birdsong nor childlaughter nor, even when they came, the sounds of the invaders’ cannons around the city.

She only knew of the siege in the increasingly frantic letters the councilors and priests and even ordinary people sent her. They told of fouled wells and breached walls, of men butchered during attacks and the last of the emaciated animals butchered in the streets.

She didn’t answer, but she read them all, pondering each word.

One morning she rose from her bed, crossed to her writing desk, dipped her pen into the inkwell.

On thick linen paper marked with her own seal, she wrote: YES.

*

Silence and space were nothing new, but not so the smells. The lingering scent of smoke and gunpowder, the salt and metal tang of blood, and the sweet-rotten stench of messy death. Buildings, blasted and smoke-blackened, leaned drunkenly against each other. Rubble and refuse both covered the streets, crowding against the stretch of tattered carpet they’d laid down for her.

Her route, circumscribed as she had directed.

There would be no unfortunate accidents today. Nothing would happen that she did not intend.

She took a deep breath and ascended the stairs up the city walls. Soldiers stood guard, faces to the wall. Their backs tensed and their muscles quivered as she passed by. A boy in a uniform too large for him started violently when her veil brushed against his thighs.

She went through a deep archway and out into the light, onto a small balcony.  Her veil slip-slithered off her head and face, pooled blackly behind her. Under it she wore pure white to catch the eye. Vivid jewels at her throat and wrists flashed against the stone.

For a moment, she was dizzy from the vastness of the plain before her. The horizon tilted crazily and she clutched the stone railing. Her stomach tightened as she looked at the enemy massed below, at the faces turning up to her, waiting, as they had been told, for her surrender.

So many people.

“Soldiers of my enemy.” Her voice carried, commanded, compelled. “Look at me now.”

They did, and were bound. Even as their eyes burned and their breath turned to acid, even as their weapons fell from nerveless hands, they looked. They could not stop. Did not want to stop.

As the enemy soldiers fell in swathes, choking on their own awe, burning in her gaze, she descended onto the field and walked among them, forcing herself to see what they had become.

Forcing herself to see what she was.

Fingers brushed against her skirt. She would have walked past, spared the man a worse death, but his hand clenched in the fabric, insistent.

She looked down at the soldier. His scalded face blistered, his breath was hot and labored, squeezed out of bubbling lungs.

“Beautiful…” he gasped, even as she killed him. “So… beautiful.”

good things still happen

One of the nice things about writing and publishing is that even if you go on a burnout-induced hiatus, good things can still happen in your career.

Stories on retailer sites continue to sell.

An editor contacts you and asks if you might possibly have something lying around for a themed anthology. Lo and behold, you actually have something that fits, written months ago and abandoned since. Even better, said editor likes the story and buys it.

Your husband hand-sells your books, and you hear back from a reader that you write like a poet, picking your words with care.

Your c0-writer points out that the story you wrote together made it onto an Honorable Mentions list for Best Horror from 2013 (I didn’t realize Creepy Doll Story, aka Sand and Seawater, was horror, but considering who I co-wrote it with… *eyes Jo*).

You go on Twitter after months of ignoring it (*blows dust off*) and discover that someone wrote a lovely review of your novella.

And when you finally return to your writing blog and start clearing out the tumbleweeds and cobwebs, you’re greeted with, “Missed you! So glad you’re back.”

All of which are so helpful as I return from a long, but much-needed, break.

So. *deep breath*

Hello, readers and writer friends. Hello, stories o’ mine. I’m back.