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As penance for being a day late (and we won’t even discuss dollars short), I’m posting a new story from the annals of the Black Dog. If I ever get around to doing a revised edition, I’ll add this one.
One For the Road
Casey was looking a little down in the mouth when she started her shift. Granted, it’s not always obvious when a banshee is feeling down. They tend to be a bit morbid in the best of times, but with Casey there was always a hint of joy hanging around her.
Most folk wouldn’t notice, but then I’m not most folk. Name’s Bitsy, by the way. I’m a wisp. You know, those faintly glowing blue lights that sometimes lead travelers astray? Yeah, that’s rubbish. Mostly we’re out and about on our own business, and if someone is silly enough to follow a strange light in the woods? As I see things, they get what they deserve. I was at the Black Dog that evening, even though wisps can’t drink. Where would we put it? I go there for the company and conversation, and Casey is one of my favorite people.
Anyway, she was looking gloomy, even for a banshee, and especially for a part-time mixologist named Casey. It took a little convincing to get her to open up, but eventually she spilled.
“There was a death In the American branch of the O’Tooles,” she said. “I’m their banshee, so I had to be there. Obligations.”
“If I didn’t understand the relationship of a banshee to the family they’re attached to, I’d almost think you were reluctant.”
Casey shrugged. “I always care,” she said. “In a way, the O’Tooles really are my family. But humans are mayflies, you know? None of them live longer than the blink of a cat’s eye, by comparison. But this old guy…well, he lasted longer than most.”
I was having a suspicion. “Did you…meet him?”
“Sometimes I’d attend the wakes. It’s not against the rules, strictly speaking, and usually no one notices me, but he had the Sight. He knew what I was. We had a drink together. Just a drink. Writer’s Tears. Turned out that was his favorite. He was young then.”
“I gather this happened more than once?”
She shrugged again. “As I said, he lived a long time for a human. We attended a lot of wakes. Always the same drink. If the wake didn’t have it, he brought it himself. I…I liked him. He wasn’t afraid of me. I don’t think he was afraid of anything, even death, except maybe not living the way he chose, on his own terms. But then it was his time. I went to the wake. His own wake and they didn’t have his favorite spirit.”
Casey frowned, then rummaged behind the bar, finally producing a dusty bottle. “Haven’t opened this since the leanan sidhe was here last.” She poured a shot, placed it on the bar. “Sometimes humans find this place, so if you can, Liam O’Toole, this is for you.”
Casey put the bottle away. When she turned back, the tumbler was empty. She glared at me. “Did you?”
“You know I can’t.”
She blinked. “Oh, right.”
She smiled then. “One for the road.”
©2021 Richard Parks
Today a pretend starship captain made it to real outer space. I’ve been grumping about billionaires starting their own space programs, but it’s not necessarily a contradiction to think those bankrolling the operation are terrible people and still appreciate the push they’re giving the technology. Good people can make bad choices and horrible people sometimes have the right idea.
In short, nothing is as simple as we’d like it to be.
For instance, I’ve been beating my brains out over a simple word like ‘space’ but all that comes to me is the image of Laika in her little space capsule, Sputnik 2. She was the first creature from this planet to go into orbit. She was also a deliberate sacrifice on the altar of science.
I’m not sure when I found out that Laika went into orbit with no chance of returning safely. Laika was a stray. The Russians liked using strays for their early tests, mostly because they were used to a harsh life of deprivation and cold on the streets. Laika was one of several dogs tested for the mission, mostly by placing them into smaller and smaller crates to see which ones went the least insane. Laika, a spitz-husky mix, was the winner.
She was launched, depending on who you ask, with either seven days of food and oxygen or one day of food and seven days of oxygen. The alleged plan was to euthanize her with poisoned food before the oxygen ran out. Turned out to be a moot point. She was dead after four orbits when the cooling system of the capsule failed.
To be fair, at the time they knew how to get into orbit but not how to get out. That came later. Laika’s main job was to prove that higher mammals could survive orbit in micro-gravity. Reminds me of the earlier days of rail travel, when some people honestly believed no one could survive traveling forty miles an hour.
Laika traveled a lot faster than that. She did make a contribution to our knowledge of space. No, she wasn’t asked if she wanted any of that. Still, regular meals, warm bed. Better than the streets, I would imagine. She probably thought she was among friends. Until they strapped her into the capsule and sent her off to die. She did that for us, too.
Nature devised a plan for her return, even if the technology of the time could not. Five months after the launch, Sputnik 2’s orbit decayed. Laika finally came home.
Just a bit of the work in process, without context:
If Marta really expected to be left in peace, she was disappointed. In her dreams she was still in her bed while Amaet occupied the only chair, but that wasn’t the surprising part. Amaet always appeared when it suited her, and Marta’s wishes simply were not a consideration. That was how it had always been between them. It was what Amaet was doing that Marta had never seen before and did not understand.
The Power was sewing. She held a shiny needle and golden thread, and she worked at what appeared to be a small bit of tapestry, such as Marta had seen young noblewomen use to practice their needlecraft. She wasn’t looking at Marta at all but seemed rather focused on her work. If there was a design on the cloth, Marta could not make it out.
Marta sat up and yawned. “Would you mind telling me what you’re doing?”
“Sewing,” Amaet said. She seemed faintly amused but did not look up.
“Why?” Marta asked. “And while we’re on that subject, why here?”
“Why does someone do anything? Because they either must do it or choose to. Which do you think applies in my case?”
“I’m tired, Amaet. If there’s something you want, just tell me.”
“I want to sew,” Amaet said. “And I want to do it here, in your dreams. Or weren’t you listening?”
“Yes, but you still haven’t told me why. I gather that answer has a price on it?”
Amaet smiled then, and Marta felt a chill. It was never a good sign when Amaet smiled.
“Not at all. There is an answer, of course. One rather like a discovery of a Law of Power. That is, you must find it for yourself, or it isn’t the right answer.”
Amaet then held up the tapestry scrap for Marta to see. “What do you think of my work?”
Marta looked. The stitching was tight but irregular; Marta had seen better from royal twelve-year-olds and took a little pleasure in saying so. “It’s not very good.”
Instead of reacting angrily as Marta expected, the Power simply looked at her own work and smiled again. “No, it isn’t. Not at all.”
Amaet disappeared and Marta awoke to an empty room, save for Bonetapper sleeping on the sconce. There would be no more sleep for Marta that evening. Marta left her bed and went to the window to look out into the darkness. Autumn was approaching and the night chill made her shiver. Or perhaps it was something else.
What, by all the Powers, was that about?
(c) 2021 Richard Parks
The subject of entry points in speculative fiction came up recently. Entry points meaning which author “gateway drug” got you interested in sf/f in the first place. That’s not always easy to pin down, especially the further away you are in experience (and years) from that point. Then there’s the complication that it’s usually more than one. For example, I discovered Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein at about the same time. Even so, they weren’t the first.
That honor (or blame) goes to Nelson S. Bond.
Not a name that’s on everyone’s lips these days. Small wonder. A lot of his work was for radio plays, and some early television, but before that he wrote mostly short stories for the pulps, and the bulk of his work in the field was done before I was born. It was just an accident that I stumbled across one of his stories not too long after I learned to read. That was “Lancelot Biggs on the Saturn.”
It had it all: space as a normal working environment, worn-out cargo ships, deadly space pirates, life or death situations…and on top of that, it was still funny. The same anthology also had stories by Robert Heinlein (“The Black Pits of Luna”) and H.G. Wells (“The Truth about Pyecraft”), but nothing resonated quite like that gangly screw-up, Lancelot Biggs. I never connected with Asimov at all except for some of his non-fiction. I came back to Heinlein later of course(see above), but I wasn’t ready at the time. I had to go through Nelson Bond to get to Heinlein and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I had to get through Heinlein before I was ready for Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber. Everything in its proper order and proper time, I guess, but something has to start it all…and perhaps teach that a little humor goes a long way.
So. What was your entry point?
Last week I sent out a short fable (Acana’s Smile) to the mailing list. Yes, I know I need to be working on Other Things, but every now and then one needs a break. Also, I wanted to get it down while the image/notion was fresh in my mind. I also remember where the story came from and I don’t always know these things.
I was thinking about Madam Mim. Or more specifically, her duel with Merlin over Arthur in the movie version. I mean, I’ve read The Once and Future King and, as much as I hate to say it, the movie version of the duel was better. Why? Because Mim was a far more interesting character than she was in the book. There was a sort of fun-loving evil in the movie Mim that was totally lacking in the other Mim, who was there to be a threat but was pretty much a cipher otherwise.
Which got me thinking about magical duels in general and what it might be like to see it from the other side. Maybe things were more complicated than they appeared. So Acana’s Smile, which has nothing to do with Merlin or Mim or even Arthur, other than the initial seed. It, as usually happens, became it’s own thing in the process.
And now for something (almost) completely different. Among my many writerly duties is writing book descriptions for works of mine. Primarily, to give potential readers(one hopes) a hint of what’s going on inside. Since I don’t claim to be a master marketer (Yes, thanks again Captain Obvious), I was curious to get some feedback. So I’m going to post the latest version from All the Gates of Hell and ask the obvious question, whether you’ve read the book or not, would this get your attention?
“Ever get the feeling You might be in hell?
What if you were right?
What if that wasn’t the worst part?
Thanks to one misguided good deed, a young legal aid named Jin Hannigan discovers the truth. Her small town where nothing much ever happens? Yes, it’s hell…well, one of them, and no, that isn’t the worst part.
In the pantheon of gods, the Goddess of Mercy has a crucial role. She must decide who is worthy to advance on the Wheel of Life and Death…and who is not. Now, standing before the Gates of Hell, Jin learns the secret she kept from everyone, including herself—She is the Goddess of Mercy, she has a pile of work to do, and she’s way behind.
It’s only the fate of the entire cosmos. No pressure.
Her job aside, Jin has no idea why she chose to abandon her responsibilities and incarnate as a mortal without any memory of her true self. Jin needs to find that reason before her past finds her.
A delightful tale with twists, turns, and—surprise—a few laughs along the way.”
Why not come along?