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First published in Universe 2

Ed. Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber (Bantam Books, 1992)

Republished in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories

(Bast Books, 2017)

The old wachter peers at the holoid of Sha!n. From the holoid’s ectomurk peeks a cherubic face—shy kid grin, tousled hair, big eyes.

Tatiana’s offspring.

“Yep, I seen ’im,” says the old wachter. Its chrome headpiece wobbles up and down. “Yep, be sure o’ tat.” It spits a drop of oil. With a raspy creak, the old wachter’s armpiece flips up, plucks out its eyeball. It ponderously wipes the acrylic orb on the leg of its dingy uniform, pops the eyeball back in its headpiece. “Purty chil’. Be lookin’ jes like you, hon,” it says to Tatiana.

Tatiana’s backblades flutter hopefully. The whirring of her six stiff wings forms a pearlescent halo behind her delicate pointed face.

“And this man?” asks Dana Anad. He shoves a holoid of Tatiana’s deux-partner, Edstuart (that bastard Eddie, she calls him), in front of the old wachter’s eye.

Dana can see that the greasy smudges dappling the eye before are now smeared all over it. Rust erupts around the old wachter’s joints. And there, through a gap in the old wachter’s control console, surely the quick dart, a tiny gleam of red eyes, betrays some vermin nesting in the warm wires within.

How can a wealthy cityship like Nexus allow wachters patrolling the skin to get so grubby? It’s negligence, an eyesore, not to mention a security risk.

Security risk. The skin holds the world within. From where Dana stands on the avenue of steel strut and blood-gorged bone, the living sphere of skin arches out across an inner horizon.

“Hellya,” says the old wachter. “Him, too. Be wit’ de chil’.”

“Ah!” Tatiana cries out.

Dana takes her by the shoulders, holds her. The slim knobby cords of her wing tendons tremble.

“But ye cain’t go in der after ‘em, bud,” says the old wachter. “Porthandle be closed next six hours. Dey’s openin’ de ports. Cain’t go in der aft’ ‘em, no sirree. Not even ye, bud-oh.”

The old wachter chuckles to itself, tickled by some secret joke of senility or a surreptitious shot of electrolyte in its battery pack.

“It’s right, Tatiana,” Dana whispers in her fluted lavender ear. “Out of the question. We can’t go on.”


“Yes, my love.”

“But I’ve got the injunction. I’ve got a right to my offspring.”

A steelyn sheath surrounds the skin, shielding the living world with a thin atmosphere. The sheath opens directly to space through the ports, apertures inset with plastic diaphragms. When the ports open, the exosphere destabilizes. The living world shivers. Gravitational fields, atmospheric pressure, condensation all askew. The skin has got to maintain. Dermal intruders would be irritants to it. Maybe infection.

“The injunction is just an equitable remedy. Tatiana, please listen,” insists Dana. “The injunction has no authority here. We’ll have to wait.”

Tatiana’s ears are like irises inviting a bee’s tongue.

Dana’s desire for her stings like salt in the wound of his t-burn. Her perfume dizzies him like always, the scented oil she calls amante: ripe peaches, musk, a hint of her flesh. The dazzling scent recalls their stolen nights. He hungers for her touch.

But as soon as he desires her, the t-burn bites him.

Bruises fester under his softening skin. The sour lump on his tongue means the joints are next, each movement soon fraught with the shock of quick cuts deep within his ligaments.

The t-burn is pretty bad this time. Withdrawal from the testosterone he’s megadosed to be a man for her.

Be a man. As if Dana could ever be a man.

Other swings try to deceive themselves. I’m a man inside this body, they say. Or, despite this body, I’m a woman.

Dana knows neither is true.

He is a swing. A mutant. Accursed.

“We can’t wait!” says Tatiana. Her shimmering violet eyes stare up into Dana’s, plumbing his passion for her. “Don’t you see? Eddie’ll stow away on a sunshuttle or a starbarge, and we’ll never find him. He’ll take my Sha!n away for good this time, I know it! Oh please, Dana!”

“All right,” mutters Dana. “All right, all right.”

When the old wachter shuffles back to its post, swiveling its circuit plate for a moment, Dana kicks it in the knee tread, rips out its main cable.

The old wachter clatters to the street like a bag of scrap.

“Damn, Tatiana,” Dana says, feeling like a thug. “The things I do for you.”

He can only hope the fall jams up the old wachter’s memory. Even so, he’ll have to grease some gears next time he wants special access to Porthandle. Acquiring special access takes years on Nexus. Years and favors tendered, the codes on a small cityship broken only by necessity. Vandalizing a dermal wachter could ruin Dana’s reputation.

Damn! The things he does for her.

“My Dana,” Tatiana says, and kisses him. But her lips are cold and dry. Her face, so soft and appealing before, hardens into a mask of such determined fury he can barely stand to look at her. “Come hurry, you must hurry,” she says.

Now an order, not a plea. She shakes his hand away when he reaches for her again.

They slip past the wachter’s post, step onto the inner sky itself. The perspective swings precipitously. The avenue soars above them now, disappearing into the central city. Below their feet, the blue-veined breathing dermis of the world. Epithelial monitors stretch their skinny necks, angling lidless emerald eyespots for a better view.

Dana turns his face away from the monitors, tries to shield Tatiana’s notorious profile with his cloak.

It’s no use. She and Dana will be identified. A stunt like this could get Dana disbarred. The Municipal Bench of Nexus is punctilious with interworld counsel.

Too late to turn back now.

Ahead lies the scarlet tube of a bronchiole overlaid with biotic membrane.

That’s it!

What Dana brought Tatiana to this remote post for. Not the usual way to leave the skin. There are mouths for that, yawning directly into the sheath-ports.

No, this has to be the way. Tatiana’s final bid for her offspring calls for secrecy.

Dana massages the membrane, finds its tough curl of nerve, pinches the nerve firmly, then smooths the membrane open.

He lifts Tatiana, shoves her through.

Wrestles himself past the membrane just before it slaps shut.

Gelatinous walls squeeze all around him, the narrow shoot of the bronchiole.

The air within is putrid, poisonous. These muscular, filament-lined pipes filter the famous fresh atmosphere of Nexus. Millions of them riddle the skin, expelling vapors of the city for dispersion through the sheath.

The bronchiole propels whatever stuff enters it into Porthandle.

That is Dana’s strategy.

But it’s shameful, a Triadian damma and her Nexus counsel, expelled from the world like poison. Isn’t that the truth of their love? Something to be expelled from both their lives?

“Lie quietly,” Dana calls to Tatiana but she’s already careening ahead. The bronchiole grips him in its suckered walls. He fights panic, yields with effort to its repulsive embrace.

Lie quietly.

If only Dana could lie quietly with Tatiana again.

*   *   *

How once he’d lain in his bed, not quietly. He was burning. Burning up.

MU had awakened him out of the sweaty torpor of a ferocious e-burn and informed him that a new client had arrived.

Dana had begged to make a referral. MU had refused. MU was a metaprogram hardwired into Dana’s northside combodominium. MU had priorities. MU flashed Dana’s overdrawn credit accounts across the sleeping cell’s monitor.

“Get the fuck up,” MU said.

Dana groaned.

T-burn was always piercing, brittle. E-burn, heavy and feverish. The e-burn now, aftermath of an estrogen overdose, had fevered him for nearly two hours. Finally his breasts had collapsed. Subcutaneous gristle gripped his sternum. Shrinking hips squeezed his pelvis like an animal hide drying on the shaping rack of a tannery.

No way to lie down that wasn’t excruciating. No energy to get up.

All he deserved, trying to please Lenni.

MU feigned perplexity. “MU cannot assimilate this, Dana Anad. Diagnosed allergic, yet you megadose yourself. MU doesn’t know why you genderize at all when you know hormone withdrawal is going to be so bad.”

“MU should tell me. Then we’ll both know.”

Dana hated it when MU scolded him. There was no evading MU’s view. He slapped at the headboard controls. He succeeded in nicking his wrist.

“Take a V-shot.” Into the bedside serving tray, MU dispensed a hypodermic syringe opaque with a vile yellow opiate.

“No, no. Not another needle.”

Dana recoiled, but there was no escape. Servos snapped out of the carved ebony bed-frame. MU seized Dana’s wrist, plunged the syringe. Dana winced, angry tears starting. “It’s all Lenni’s fault, the treacherous swing. I never want to see—”

Lenni had double-swung him again.

“So don’t see,” said MU. “Now, Dana Anad, there’s someone new to see you.” A lilt and a hum to MU’s voicetape. “She’s beautiful.”

“Beautiful.” Holy suns, his programming. Numbness stole his nerves. Nice. Too nice, a V-shot. Turn to V-shots too often, and he would need the V, day in and day out. “I need beautiful like I need another hole in my arm. Remind me to upgrade MU’s common sense.”

“Pull yourself together, Dana Anad.”

MU flitted away, trailing offended feedback. Dana could hear MU’s deadpan receptionist mode echoing from the office in the east cell of the combodominium. “Madam, if you will wait one moment, please.”

Dana edged out of bed, hobbled across the sleeping cell. The north-bay porthole remodeled its almond-shaped arch as he passed, thrusting out a new arabesque. Although a disciplinarian with his other cells, Dana loved the sleeping cell’s exuberance for life. He freely permitted its erratic transmutations.

An indulgence that intimated a secret hope. That he might one day redeem his life of relentless transmutation.

A touch at the closet door, and his wardrobe presented itself—a meticulous sheaf of pressed garments held by black-gloved servos.

A conservative gray bodysuit stepped out of the wardrobe, zipped itself around him. He strapped around his wrists and neck strips of gold inset with holoids of lapis lazuli cabochons and one-carat diamonds.

Then to the groom-room for a spot of lanolin and a whisk with a teak-handled brush through the hair that fell straight to his cheekbones. Dana replanted his scalp often, favoring silvers, blonds, and lavenders. Pearly planting shafts peeped from the part down the middle of his scalp. He wasn’t sure he still liked the lustrous red he’d chosen for the last swing with Lenni.

Lenni. In boots and britches and a chamois shirt, lean-hipped, a trace of mustache on the lip. Lenni teasing fingernails across Dana’s tender scalp. Lenni seizing a lock of that lustrous red, jerking Dana’s head back. Rough insistent Lenni, demanding Dana submit. Lenni bending over Dana for a kiss.

Then Lenni coming up, full-lipped and full-hipped, laughing falsetto, ripping open the chamois shirt to show new full breasts.

Treacherous Lenni. Genderizing female, just like that. How could Lenni do this to him? Swing fem right in the middle of his own fem manifestation? Double genderizing not less than half an hour into Dana’s swing?

And Dana, he’d injected the estrogen not very willingly. Endured the swell and change of the body, accepted the inevitable agony of e-burn, to please Lenni.

Please, Lenni, for pity’s sake, you can’t do this.

The bastard, the bitch, the treacherous double-crossing swing. Dana never wanted to see—

Dana suffered their mutation. Lenni reveled in it.

He could hear MU in the office cell, making polite conversation.

He stuck his head in the wraparound, watched in the interior mirrors as the air-jets blasted him clean. His face looked like hell. Lips cracked. Eyes drooping, glazed, stained with last night’s mascara.

Steady up, he told himself. Looking like a superannuated whore, and a new client waiting.

He set the wraparound on mist, directed mild electroshock around the eyes. Optic muscles quivered. He wasn’t happy about the eyes. With such eyes, a man might look distinguished, a woman experienced. But a swing, Dana thought, looked like death.

Over his face he sprayed a superfine celluloid powder that sealed in ten seconds into a smooth ivory mask. No beard to contend with this time, thank goodness for small favors.

In the groom-room cabinet lay another syringe filled with the yellow bliss of V. What the hell. The first dose was peeling off the e-burn, laying the ache bare again too soon. He plunged the needle under his tongue.

Taking on a new client implied another tomorrow. Dana wondered if he could stand himself for another tomorrow.

*   *   *

She was Tatiana, a damma from Triad.

From a clannish folk, close-knit and closer-mouthed, not often seen in interworld ports.

Of elegant proportions and regal deportment, she was nevertheless doll-like, quick and charming. Her complexion was lavender jade, fine and translucent, with lines like crackles in glaze fanning up from her eyes and mouth. Her slanting amethyst eyes seemed to regard him askance until he realized they curved around the bilateral sides of her narrow face. A dress of ivory silk fell from her shoulders to a wasp-waist, then flared out around her knees. A latticework of lace across her back permitted six long cartilaginous, oval-tipped wings of shimmering violet to extrude with striking grace.

Beautiful. Good old MU.

But what was beautiful? The first planet from this particular central-sun was beautiful, but not to one dying of thirst. The deep purity of space was beautiful, but not to one shipwrecked.

Who could be beautiful to a swing?

Still, Dana caught himself staring.

Tatiana told him she was united with a permanent partner. “We call it Solemn Deux.”

But she and her partner in deux had divorced. “It’s over,” she said. “I cannot love him anymore, and he certainly doesn’t love me.”

She was bitter. He’d failed her. They had an offspring, Sh!an. “We call the offspring the Point of the Triad.” Triadian law required that the estranged couple share custody of the offspring.

About this, she raged. “Oh, Dana Anad,” she cried, “I never wanted to see him again until I was required to.”

In flagrant violation of their custody agreement, the deux-partner Edstuart had kidnapped Sha!n and disappeared.

She produced documents on interworld disks.

“Repeat offender,” she declared. “Oh, he’s done this before. Not showing up at our appointments. Or showing up, but not with the offspring. Bold as you please, mocking me. That bastard Eddie,” she said, the epithet incongruous in the fluting voice of her folk.

“And now you think they’re on Nexus?” asked Dana.

She was certain. Shortly after he and the offspring disappeared, a luxury cruiser had warped through Triad, bound for Nexus.

She shifted in her seat, seemed restless.

Dana could see that the base of her left fourth finger was surrounded by a cybernetic centipede. Spiky spinal fur glistening like sapphires set in the platinum ribs of its exoskeleton. Silver proboscis plunged in the major blood vessel of her left hand. From the centipede’s neck extruded a razor-thin ridge curved in the shape of a crescent moon.

Dana had seen such parasites before. In exchange for high-grade nourishment in quantities limited only by the host’s vitality, the centipedes constrained certain nervous diseases or maintained artificially induced behaviors better than any drug. Some swings used centipedes when they could get them. But such devices, with their exchange of need, made Dana sick. The sight of its gleaming head buried in her hand repulsed him.

She caught his glance. “Triad attempts to enforce the Vows of Deux this way. I can’t detach it. But I swear to you, it affects me no longer. I don’t seek him out of any induced obsession. I simply need to have my Sha!n returned to me. Dana Anad, you of all men must understand.”

Dana picked uncomfortably at the bodysuit sleeve tormenting his sore arm. You of all men. Always this embarrassment. People’s illusions about him that in due course would require a humiliating disabusement. He never could shake the knee-jerk.

She watched him intently.

“If it’s kidnapping, we should notify the Nexus police,” Dana said.


“Couldn’t the offspring be in jeopardy?”

“No! No Nexus police! No outsiders! This is a matter of Triadian law!” Tatiana rose from her seat, bright-faced with urgency. “We are an old world. A closed world. We have stood aloof from your interworld community. This is shameful for me. You cannot imagine what a disgrace. On Triad, matters of deux are confidential among our people. And me, approaching you, an outsider, like this? Offworld? Oh, Dana Anad! It is forbidden to reveal our ways to anyone, anywhere. Yet I’m begging you, help me.”

She stood, paced around his office. Her silk skirt rustling.

Dana reconsidered the reasonableness of taking on her case, overdrawn credit accounts be damned. “Article Two of the Interworld Code stipulates that no neutral counsel may intervene in matters of parochial jurisprudence, unless the petitioner waives all parochial rights and submits to interworld law. Look here, Tatiana. Do you so submit?”

“I do, yes!” She paused. “Well, why not. I have to, don’t I?”

“Then what would you have me do, if you refuse the protection of the Nexus police?”

“Oh, Dana, if you would just find them. Arrange for a meeting. Do something discreet. Impress Edstuart. Invoke your interworld law, but in a way that won’t expose me. He would listen to you, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, I could obtain an injunction in the Interworld Court requiring him to honor your custody agreement. Confidentiality would apply.”

“Yes! Yes, that’s perfect.”

She turned her narrow back to him so he could see her sinewy shoulder blades, the startling wings, her waist through the lace. She swung her hips in the café dance women do when they want someone to notice them.

Then composed, smile dazzling, she sauntered to where Dana sat and took his hand.

Dana recoiled. E-burn crackled over his skin.

She began to murmur nonsense in the tongue of her folk like a mother baby-talking her child. Her slanting gaze dizzied him. She exuded some kind of power. Her touch and words grew amorous.

“Elegant Dana,” she said. “What is this great pain of yours?” She drew back his bodysuit sleeve, surveyed the new punctures, his scabs, his scars. “Surely not a drug addict?”

“No. No! I am an androgyne,” said Dana. “A swing. Not a man. Not a woman, either. Neither and both. A mutant. Oh, my kind has always known chromosomal jumbling. Women born into men’s bodies. Men into women. Hermaphrodites, with both sexes manifested. But never the true androgyne. Once there was too much radiation. The anarchy of twelve billion matings on our homeworld. Now, here we are on Nexus. Here I am. Please don’t be frightened.”

“I’m not.”

“Right now, I’m particularly neither. I’m in stasis. Undifferentiated male and female. This is my normal state of affairs.” He laughed bitterly. As if anything could be normal about a swing and his/her affairs.

“But you can become a woman? Or a man?”

“Oh, yeah. With injection of the appropriate hormone. Then the gender manifests.”

“The gender manifests. How marvelous!”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Why do you hate yourself so?” she asked tenderly.

He was struck dumb. Then finally, quietly, “The universe is a great duality. Morally, there is good or evil. Physically, light or dark. Sensually, hot or cold. Temporally, now or infinity. There is no third mode that isn’t suspect. Between good and evil lies compromise. Between light and dark lies murk. Between male and female stands the androgyne.”

“Between your dualities lies harmony and balance, too,” she said. “And perhaps whoever you are, whatever you are . . . is your truth?”

“Harmony! Balance! Truth!” He got to his feet, pushed her away. “The truth is my kind is hated and feared throughout the worlds. Rapists of daughters, the lynch mobs call us, sodomists of sons. Yet only when we genderize—conform to the dual world—can we become sexually active. Not when we’re in stasis. So even if I were a sexual psychopath, I’m a hundredth as able as someone normally genderized. Damn absurd, eh?”

“And this great pain of yours,” she persisted, pulling him back to his chair, “it comes when you manifest a gender?”

“During. Mostly after. Before, too, in a way.”

The terrible emptiness of stasis. The sadness. The grief, like a death.

That was why Dana megadosed. Dosed and dosed again, despite the agony of change. He must remember to tell MU. The awful emptiness of stasis.

“My poor darling Dana,” Tatiana murmured. “I have something for your pain.”

From her bodice she withdrew a celadon flask. She twisted the stoppered top and, with an inscrutable look, tipped the flask at him.

The most amazing scent wound around him, a ripe rich lusty odor that so startled him with its blatant allure that he laughed out loud.

“This is amante,” she whispered. “It soothes and heals. We the damma of Triad use it to ease our own particular pain.” Her fingertips poised above his damaged forearm, bearing a drop of the glistening ointment.

Dana struggled to free himself, but she gripped him with surprising strength.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t touch me. Just your touch right now would cause me the most excruciating—”

“Not my touch, Dana Anad,” she said and lowered her hand. “Not my touch.”

He flinched with foreboding, then trembled with disbelief. Warmth at the instant her honeyed hand touched his skin. Then soothing folded over his torment, coolness and warmth, mingling, trading sensations, a minted mist that ticked him. Then an absurd unexpected blossoming of pleasure, an ecstasy rising out of his depths, welling up from unexpected places.

And a vision: Tatiana. Jewel. Lady of ladies. So beautiful.

Distrust seized and shook him. He struggled to throw off the blinding pleasure.

But amante wrapped around him like the legs of a lover.

He thought he saw her watching him, assessing his reaction. Too knowing. Too unpleasantly smug.

Then her radiance blossomed again. The odor of peaches wafted from her fingertips. She stood and seemed to float across the room, trailing mist. She was collecting her things, a gossamer shawl that spilled over her shoulders. With a sorrowful look, she flitted to the door.

He realized she was leaving. Fierce longing to keep her near pierced him.

“So we are agreed?” he heard her ask. “You will do as I wish,” he heard her say, not a question now.

Before he could answer, she was gone.

*   *   *

Tatiana lies where the bronchiole spit her out, pale limbs sprawled amid her scarlet silk.

Dana wrests his ankle from the bronchiole’s orifice, tumbling backward over Tatiana when the sucking lips release him with a sudden pop!

She screams with laughter, tussling with him playfully. Then falls back, silent and weak. Grimaces. Her pain is worsening.

She must find her offspring soon.

Dana grinds his teeth, tasting the blood t-burn loosens from his gums. If only he could return to full stasis, he might risk genderizing into masculine strength again.

“Dana my darling,” she whispers. She touches him tenderly, like she used to. But a spasm shakes her and she growls, “Get me up, get me up. Hurry, damn you!”

Dana lurches to his feet, pulls her up.

They set out across Porthandle.

Beneath the steelyn sheath, the world curves down. Out of the dark floor that is the top of the inner sky spring ten billion shafts of light shining out into the void. Monstrous clanging issues from the ports twisting open and shut overhead, revealing the pitch-black of space. Set against that ebony infinity, the defiant jewel-like sheen of sunshuttles, starbarges, needle-slim scoutships.

Wind howls. Sleet batters them. Dana clicks MU’s portable jack onto one of the transport tracks crisscrossing the exosphere like the silk of a spider web. But for MU’s grip, he and Tatiana would be plucked from the top of the world and flung into the void.

Ahead lies the knobby hulk of a dockworkers’ den. Woozy red lights, rowdy shouts. Dana maneuvers them both through the tattered entry. The den is dim, disheveled, strewn with broken glass and pools of brew. Tatiana spins her wings dry, sending the drenching off her in a brisk whir.

The drunken shouts fall silent at the sight of her. A roomful of eyes turns, sporting silver eye-patches, nictitating lids, plastic-fringed robotic lenses.

“Hey! Whaddaya want here?” yells the den-keeper.

“Have you seen this youngster? This man?” Dana holds up the holoids.

The roomful of eyes isn’t friendly. There are no winged folk among them. A snarl rumbles up from a roomful of whiskeyed throats.

“Hey, seen ‘em?” says the denkeeper. “Buddy, I can’t keep them bugs outta here.” He flicks a towel at an imaginary fly on the bar, stares rudely at Tatiana.

Dana lays a hand on her arm, silencing her retort. “Know where they’re bound?”

“Five’ll get you ten, the starbarge leavin’ for the Coldworld V mines.” The denkeeper can’t resist divulging his speculation. “This bug, he says he don’t have no stash, and he wants to skip Nexus, see, him and the bug kid. So I tell ‘im, the barge is takin’ on labor for an X on the dotted line. That’s where they’re bound, ten’ll get you fifteen. Them and the godzilla what’s askin’ about ‘em, too.” The denkeeper leans toward Dana, lowers his voice. “Now beat it, buddy, if ya know what’s good for ya.”

“The godzilla?”

“Yeah. Guy with wings like her and a temper with a shot of gin in him. Twice her size and a face like a broken plate. Smashed the shot glass. Shoved around a couple o’ customers what got in his way. Got some kind o’ blade as long as my arm. One piece o’ steelyn, man.” The denkeeper leers at Tatiana with a crude admixture of blood-lusty awe and animal fear. “I woulda got the cops, ‘cept he says he is one. A cop. Listen, I don’t like bugs, buddy,” he says to Dana. “Understand? So I don’t mind tellin’ ya, get her out o’ here.”

The snarl deepens to a malevolent roar. Tatiana trembles against him.

“Please,” Dana insists. He has to be sure. “He was Triadian? He said he was a cop?

“Yeah yeah yeah. No offense to ya, buddy, but get the hell out. Now.

They dive through the entry, back into the winds of Porthandle.

“Prefect Tule,” Tatiana whispers. “He’s in Porthandle.”

“Yes,” Dana agrees. One step ahead of them, maybe two. Fear shoots up his spine.

He knows that knife, the sweep of it, the sheen of it. The way it shrieks when it dives to flesh. Prefect Tule promised to use it the next time he and Dana meet.

*   *   *

“Are you happy?” she asked as they lay together, amante rising off their flesh. He answered, happy? No, not happy. The word could not contain the well-being she brought him. His pleasure in her knew no bounds. Every part of her enchanted him. And the whole of her was more than lips and waist and hips.

She was entirely, irrevocably female.

She didn’t change.

When she made it clear she wanted him, Dana had swung stud without hesitation.

Swing stud. Those were Lenni’s words. Swing slang. Vulgar.

But Tatiana laughed when the term tumbled from Dana’s mouth. She helped him with the needle. Watched as his jaw lengthened, beard and chest hair sprouted, arms hardened, hips elongated. She smoothed amante on his ache.

Then she returned his kiss.

“What is this great pain damma suffer?” he asked one night. “It might be worth suffering for this.”

He traced silver veins down the celadon flask. Tatiana said that the perfumed drug-lotion couldn’t be obtained anywhere in the living worlds except on Triad, and Triad didn’t offer it for sale. Only a female of Tatiana’s rank, a damma, was permitted to possess amante.

“Nothing is worth that pain,” she said.

Her cold retort silenced him.

In a while she said, “You want to know about our pain?” Her mouth tightened. “It is the whip. The pain that lashes. The pain of separation. When we damma are young, it comes. This whip drives us to find the deux-partner. We seek and seek until we find the one who will join us in Solemn Deux. And then, after deux, it gets worse, this pain of separation. Then we must have the offspring. If we’re fertile and lucky, and the offspring comes, we are blessed with the Triad. We are blessed with the Point of the Triad, by all of Triad. And the pain that would never cease is gone.”

“What happens when the Triad separates?” Dana asked. “Like you and Eddie and Sha!n?”

“Oh, Dana,” she cried, “I can barely face each day.”

So it was cultural, legal, even moral, the integrity of the Triad. But ultimately it was some kind of physical, instinctual drive, Dana concluded, her urgency to find the offspring.

Dana jacked MU into full telespace embodiment and sent MU with his citizen’s surveillance code through the world brain. All import-export information on Nexus was closely regulated. Declining reciprocity with any other world in exchange for a universal neutral status, the cityship was an interworld haven. Obtaining a universal neutral status, the cityship accepted whatever came to it, subject strictly to cityship regulations, but no more.

Such was Nexus’s interworld position, both privileged and vulnerable.

The world brain, its monitors sprouting at every pore, post, and synapse, saw and stored all that transpired on the cityship.

To a Nexus citizen in good standing, with the right code and a properly formatted request, the brain divulged.

MU duly reported that a male Triadian adult and his offspring had arrived on a luxury cruiser. They’d cleared customs and fled into the city.

But Nexus was a small world. The brain routinely supercopied global memory into high-security subconscious storage. For a Nexus citizen with clearance, anything could be traced.

Dana sent MU on a trace.

Pending some development, Dana showed Tatiana around his world.

Everywhere they went, she provoked excited whispers and awed stares. There were few winged folk on the living worlds. The commotion pleased Dana. Since they’d first made love, she’d taken from wearing white to wearing red: vermilion silk, scarlet sequins, capes of wine-colored velvet.

She was zipped into a fiery red leather jumpsuit the evening they’d supped on rare hydroponic beefsteak anemone, then saw a circus of chimeras from Arkan. She was making arrangements at the front desk to pick up her correspondence at her hotel in the morning when Lenni strolled into the lobby of the club.

Lenni. In heels and jewels and a well-cut dress, sultry, sulky, an escort in a tuxedo in tow. The very picture of a woman about town. Lenni genderized so well, Dana wondered if the escort knew this was just an image. Fake. An imitation. An illusion.


“Dana, baby!” Lenni cried. The escort glowered. “You look wonderful.” A look Dana knew only too well crept across Lenni’s theatrically made-up face. “Suns, it’s been too long.” Then Lenni noticed Tatiana returning to his side. Scrutinized her red leather, her wings. “Who the hell is this?”

“Excuse us, Lenni,” Dana said coldly. “My friend and I are about to leave.” He directed Tatiana to the cloakroom to retrieve their coats.

Us? There’s only one us, Dana. That’s you and me.”

“You’re wrong. It’s over for us.

“You and me, baby, we’re one of a kind. We’re the exciting thing. Oh, we blow hot and cold with each other, but that’s all right. I love the drama.” Lenni dismissed the escort. “It’s so good to see you again. And each of us genderized as the opposite. Just the way you like it. Everything in duality.”

“No. Nothing is in duality.” Anger burst in Dana’s chest. “Nothing is ever in duality with you. You’ll be wearing a beard before the night is out. You won’t be able to go out for morning coffee in those clothes, not because you wouldn’t dare, but because your body won’t fit.”

“You’re so stuck, baby. I’m only trying to set you free. Help you fully realize yourself. Why can’t you let go? Why can’t you accept the changes as they come?”

“Free?” Dana said. “I don’t want to be free. I want to be real. Solid. Something I know that I am, truly, time and time again. Look, Len. I don’t hate you. I just can’t swing with you anymore.”

“Oh, real, baby? You want to be real? What about her? Think it’s real with her? She’s Triadian, isn’t she?”

Dana swallowed hard. He didn’t like Lenni’s tone. Lenni was an interworld statistician. Lenni knew a lot of strange things.

“Oh, yeah, you don’t want to say, huh?” Lenni pressed close. “Let me tell you, they’re ruthless, baby. I mean, ruthless.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Butcher and eat their own kids, that’s the rumor. I mean, the stories I’ve heard? Triadians?”

Dana shoved Lenni away. “She’s a damma. Some kind of great lady on their world. She has principles, Lenni. Something you wouldn’t understand. She retained me as her counsel in pursuit of a just cause. A family law dispute, as a matter of fact. She’s entirely devoted to me.”

“Devoted. There will never be anyone as devoted to you as me. Yeah, go ahead. Walk away. You wait. Wait and see how devoted your little madam butterfly is. Triadians, they don’t give a damn about anyone or anything but their own kind. You’ll see.”

*   *   *

In the morning, Dana took the tram downtown to the Interworld Court. He was exhausted from Tatiana’s insatiable lovemaking and overwrought from the confrontation with Lenni. Tatiana had insisted he take more testosterone and he had, dreading the ferocious t-burn that would surely follow.

The Court shone before him in the morning light, ten thousand colloidal cells in a glass-and-bone tower housing each judge’s quarters and staff. From each tiny cell, litigants jacked into a computer-constructed telespace vaster in mental perception than ten cityships. An appearance in Interworld Court conferred irrefutable authority.

Dana had prepared Tatiana’s request for an injunction, coding for the confidentiality she insisted upon. But tension gnawed at his nerves, his intuition informing him something was wrong. Sure enough, when he jacked into telespace and logged in the injunction, the judge discovered an oversight.

Tatiana wasn’t technically divorced from Edstuart.

Under interworld law, she was only separated. The Triadian documents she’d given him hadn’t been clear, with a muddled usage of the term “Solemn Deux” and an enigmatic reference to the “Holy Triad.” From all Tatiana had told him, Dana had assumed she was divorced for interworld purposes and coded the injunction accordingly.

The judge refused to proceed until the code was correct. Dana jacked out of link, dashed across the hall with the hearing disk in hand, burst into the office of the Clerk of the Interworld Court to use the inputter.

The door slammed and locked behind him.

The knife sliced his exhalation of surprise.

“Stay away from her, counselor,” said the giant in a voice like cracking glass. Asthmatic breath wheezed from his wrinkled snout. Six huge wings buzz-sawed from his back.

“How dare you threaten me. Clerk!” shouted Dana, circumnavigating the Clerk’s cramped quarters as the giant advanced on him. The knife the giant clutched was as thin as a scalpel, shaped like a crescent moon. It flung shimmers of icy light into Dana’s bewildered eyes.

“Give up the case, counselor. She’s my responsibility and mine alone. I am the Enforcer of the Holy Triad and Its Keeper. Get out of here. Go now. Out the door and be gone.”

“No, I won’t! She came to me for help. Retained me. She’s got a right to interworld counsel under Nexus law, you’ve no right to interfere—”

The crescent cut the air.

“It is you who interfere, outsider. This is a matter of Triadian law. Forbidden to you.”

“I don’t understand,” Dana said reasonably. “The deux-partner has breached their joint custody agreement, under your own law. She just wants the offspring returned to her. Because of the deux-partner’s breach, I intend to counsel her to demand full custody and have the divorce finalized.”

The giant emitted a gargle that must have been laughter. “No, you do not understand, counselor. She can never divorce him. Never separate, not for long. She is the initiator of the Holy Triad, bearer of the Mystery. She is damma. And she has deceived you, if you think otherwise.”

Dana darted forward to the Clerk’s desk, seized the comm at last. “I’m calling the police.”

“I am the police.” The giant flicked the comm out of Dana’s fingers with the tip of the knife. “Prefect Tule of Triad. You will cease and desist, counselor. I insist. Triadian law requires it.”

“You’re on Nexus, now, Prefect Tule,” said Dana, emboldened. A cop? At least the monster wasn’t a common criminal. “As an officer of the law, you ought to know you’re bound by the laws of this cityship. You will cease and desist. And I will report you to the Nexus authorities for attacking a citizen.”

Dana seized a steelyn stylus from the Clerk’s desk, fenced the knife-blade away. At impact, the stylus split apart like a stick of warm butter.

Prefect Tule spat on the floor. “That is what I think of your Nexus law.” He sheathed the knife. “Leave her alone, counselor. You have been notified. You interfere with the Holy Triad in any way, next time you will feel the blade of Triadian law.”

*   *   *

Beneath the tempest of Porthandle, Dana catches a sound. There! And again, closer. A rusty whine from somewhere behind his left shoulder. He strains to see.

Suddenly he feels a touch that won’t let go. The handclasps snake out on a steelyn cord, truss up Dana’s wrists. Swift silver figure-eights pin Tatiana’s frail elbows behind her back.

“Yes sirree, bud-oh,” says the old wachter. “Gotchew now.” A wire rat peeks its purple snout out from under the old wachter’s arm-pit, peers at the captives with jet bead eyes. “Tain’t happy wit chew. Tain’t happy a-tall. I be placin’ chew and der lady under arrest. Back to de skin wit’ ye.” The wire rat leaps to the old wachter’s necktube, capers across its shoulder shelf.

Tatiana writhes against the old wachter’s restraints. Her lips curl back from her tiny pointed teeth. “This is all your fault,” she snaps at Dana. “You’ve failed me. Just like everyone else.”

“Tatiana, please! I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Do something, Dana Anad. We can’t go back to the skin.”

“I’ve got no strength. The t-burn. I can’t even feel the amante anymore.”

“Take a t-shot!”

“I can’t. It could kill me.”

“And what’s your miserable swing life worth? You’re not a man.”

He knows it’s the pain of separation making her cruel. Still.

“No,” he says, struck to his soul. “I’m not a man. And you’re not a woman, either. Not really. Are you.”

“No,” she says bitterly. Tears pool across her cheeks. “I am damma.”

Pride spurs Dana now. From his bound wrists, he flips MU’s portable jack at the old wachter’s control console. The frontal claw of the portable neatly snatches the old wachter’s main cable.

“Override.” Dana voice-activates MU, splicing the command directly into the old wachter’s settings.

“Eh?” The old wachter pulls up, startled. The wire rat chuckles maliciously at Dana. “Cain’t override. This be Security One. Cain’t override, not even fer ye, bud.”

Dana sighs. “All right. But don’t take us back to the skin. Take us to the docks. To the starbarges. You can do that, can’t you?”

“T’well, t’well. To de docks, den.” The old wachter swivels, then lurches into the roiling fog of Porthandle. The wire rat squeals and plunges through a crack into the old wachter’s abdomen.

“One more thing,” Dana says, trudging after the robot. “Who reconnected your main cable? Who sent you after us?”

“Porthandle tain’t a fit place fer man nor beast, eh bud-oh?” the old wachter says by way of an answer. It chuckles to itself. “No sirree, not man nor beast.”

*   *   *

As Dana had requested, MU traced Edstuart and the offspring through a corrupt vascular monitor in the employ of the Nexus eastside district. Edstuart had resorted to immigration racketeers well known to Nexus atmosphere agents. The racketeers had taken them across town, changing transports in an obvious fashion, to a cheap hotel in the slum known as Atro City.

There, amid fugitives from a thousand worlds, Edstuart and the offspring Sha!n hid.

Dana kicked in the flimsy door, burst into the sour room.

“Edstuart of Triad?” he said. “Tatiana’s offspring Sha!n? By this injunction of the Interworld Court, and my citizen’s power of arrest under Nexus law, I demand you come with me.”

The Triadian turned.

Not the brutish playboy Dana had imagined. Nor the embittered ex-partner Tatiana had described.

Edstuart was a frightened man. As elegant as Tatiana, with slim lavender limbs and six graceful wings, Edstuart was—Dana realized with a hopeless stab of jealousy—the perfect mate for her.

“Please, sir,” Edstuart said, trembling.

From a rumpled cot in the corner, the tiny Triadian Dana had seen only in Tatiana’s holoid blinked sleepily up at him, even more endearing than the holoid had been able to convey. The offspring whispered, “Hadda?” and Edstuart answered, “Shush, shush.”

Sha!n yawned ingenuously, revealing two long canine teeth that arched from tiny upper gums. With the gleam of razors. Curved like crescent moons. The offspring’s teeth flung shimmers of ivory light into Dana’s astonished eyes.

“We cannot go with you, sir,” Edstuart said.

“But she wants to see Sha!n. She wants to see you, too. Do you hate her so much?”

“Hate Tatiana?” Edstuart laughed bitterly. “Who could hate her? She’s magnificent! Haven’t you found her so?”

“Yes,” Dana said and turned away, burning with unexpected shame.

How could he tell this elegant Triadian an androgyne was in love with his beautiful wife?

In love. What did in love mean to a swing? It meant Dana wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anyone, even when he was in stasis. It meant Tatiana shared her heart, her body, her amante. She accepted Dana as a man even though she knew he was a swing.

“Then why?” Dana asked gently. “Why run away like this?’

Edstuart bit his fist. “Don’t you know? Ah, I see. No, of course not. She wouldn’t tell you. She’s a true damma. Keeps our secrets.” Edstuart bit his fist again so hard he drew blood from his delicate lavender skin. He grimaced at the sight of it. “Well, sir, I don’t hate her. I’ve loved her. I suppose I love her still. But I can’t take Sha!n back to her. Not now. You see, she can’t help herself. You don’t know what she will do to him.”

“Tatiana? Do to her offspring?”

“Yes. It’s more terrible than I can say.”

And after all her protestations. My little one, I want my little one back. Her entreaties sounded discordant in Dana’s memory.

The offspring cooed, extending a tiny hand toward cockroaches scuttling down the wall.

“Please put away your injunction, sir,” Edstuart said. “Say you never found us. Say we were already gone.”

Sickened, Dana edged out the door. “What will you do now? Where will you go?”

“I don’t know.” Edstuart laughed ruefully. “We left in a bit of a hurry. I didn’t take much.”

Feeling ludicrous, Dana threw down a couple of Nexus bills he had in his pocket. “I suppose I better tell you. Prefect Tule is here.”

“Prefect Tule!” Edstuart turned pale. He darted to the window, seized the shade, yanked it shut.

“Know him?”

“You—you’re not working with him, are you, sir?”

“Suns, no!”

“He didn’t follow you here?”

“I sincerely hope not.”

“You’re sure? You’re sure? You were careful?”

“Very careful. He told me he’s a police officer. Is that true?”

“Yes, yes.” Edstuart sat down heavily on the cot, folded Sha!n in his arms, stroked the offspring’s downy hair. “And it’s true, I am a criminal. I cannot accept your charity, though I thank you.”

Dana picked up the bills, tucked them firmly in Edstuart’s hand. “What possibly could be your crime? If she abuses—” He could not finish.

“I’ve failed the vows of Solemn Deux. I’ve shunned the Mystery. Run away from the duty of the Holy Triad. I love them both so much. Too much. Whatever else has happened and will happen, Tatiana has never run away. She’s never shirked her duty as damma. Ah!” Edstuart brushed tears from his cheeks. The offspring began to whimper. “If Prefect Tule is on Nexus, then truly the time for the Holy Triad is near. Please go, sir, and grace go with you.”

*   *   *

“Dana! Baby, wait!”

The familiar whiskey-and-smoke voice stopped him when he should have hurried on through the alleys of Atro City.

“If you’re following me, Lenni,” Dana said, “cut it out right now.”

“Following you?” In tweeds, with a pipe and a brass-knobbed cane, a salt-and-pepper goatee. “Hey, I love Atro City on a free afternoon, what a surprise,” said Lenni. “Say, Dana, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. Come here. Sit a minute with me.”

Lenni propelled him to a door stoop. Made Dana sit, unbuttoned Dana’s collar, fussed over him. Fingers through his hair.

Dana sighed. “Thanks, Len.”

“Well, baby. You don’t look so good today.”

“And you look great. I don’t know how you do it.”

“Oh, hell. You do it great, yourself. Don’t kid me.”

“Nope. Swinging isn’t real. It isn’t real for me. Don’t you see?”

“Yeah, I do see. I see you’ve swung stud for weeks now. Weeks and weeks. To please her.”

“What’s it to you?”

“It’s not good for you, baby. With your allergies? You should know better. Getting t-burned, big time?”

“No. Hey, Len, tell me you’re not following me.”

A troupe of chrome-clad gravity dancers who used Arkanian microboosters to defy the local g-force stopped before them, commenced a rollicking kick-and-float routine.

Lenni tossed currency-chips into the scarlet helmet that bobbed before them. “You worry me. You’re getting too wrapped up in the daily grind. You’re working too hard.”

“Because I could be getting in a bad tangle,” persisted Dana. He hated how Lenni always evaded a direct answer to a simple question. “You get in the way, you could get hurt, and not by me.” He met Lenni’s eyes. “I don’t want that.”

A gravity dancer pranced up an invisible one-story stairwell and executed a perfect swan dive off the invisible edge, swooping up from the concrete within millimeters of impact.

Lenni tossed her another currency-chip, then scowled at the troupe, who somersaulted away, cheering and hooting. “It’s your little madam butterfly, isn’t it?”


“Yeah. So I looked up some stats on this world of hers. Want to hear?”

“No, but you’re going to tell me anyway, so get on with it.”

“Don’t be so stubborn, I’m trying to help. Now, listen. Triad’s big, equatorial radius of seventy-five thousand klics. The twelve billion natives aren’t pressed for space like a dozen other worlds I could mention. Very healthy planetary profile. They’ve still got frontiers, habitable areas not yet cultivated. The population enjoys a growth rate of 105 percent. They want to increase that rate, with so much available niche. Boost the citizenry.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Sure. But the demographics puzzled me. Stats show a young adult population of some seven billion. They should be paired off. But they’re not. Oh, I don’t mean permanent pair bonding. You don’t have to have that with 105 percent growth. Although in a frontier society with a stable homebase infrastructure, you tend to see restrictive institutions regulating reproductive functions. You following me?”

“I think so.”

“But we’ve observed no generalized pair-bonding on Triad. At all.”

“Wrong,” Dana said. “What about Tatiana and Edstuart?”

“I said generalized. The population at large is productive, industrious, specialized, inventive. And, to all appearances, neuter. Can you beat that! What a kick in the ass for the likes of you and me!”

“Don’t tempt me to kick you in the ass right now.”

“Bring it on, baby.”

And they were laughing and play-punching each other just like in old times. Till Dana sobered up, sunk back into the seriousness of this puzzling case.

Of Tatiana.

“Okay,” Lenni said, straightening his cravat, “so how to account for a population growth of 105 percent? How to account for your little madam butterfly? Here’s my best guess, since it’s true, they’re very secretive. A small class of Triadians is charged with the reproductive function. I suspect this elite has specialized biological equipment. And they enter into highly regulated reproductive unions.”

“Solemn Deux.”

“You got it. Oh, it’s hush-hush. Members of the reproductive class are of vital importance to the species. But how do they do it? What do they do? Nobody’s talking. High state secret, with religious rhetoric thrown in to keep the outsiders mystified.”

“Tatiana and Edstuart have an offspring, Lenni,” Dana said wearily.

She never had referred to Sha!n as a child. Neither had Edstuart.

“Fine, all right! But that isn’t even zero population growth.” Lenni took on the insistent tone Dana disliked. “The government protects this elite. Honors them. Indulges them. Allows them privileges. You should hear the rumors. Orgies, exotic food, intoxicating drink, aphrodisiacal spices. Amante.

Amante isn’t an aphrodisiac, Lenni. It’s an anesthetic.”

“An anesthetic!” Lenni howled with laughter. “Baby, the stories I’ve heard. Amante?

“An anesthetic lotion,” said Dana, flushing. Kindled with the quick anger of finding out what should have been obvious, and from someone else. Tatiana’s explanations tasted ashy. “Used for medicinal purposes,” he continued, though he sounded lame even to himself. “To ease a certain pain the damma must endure.”

Lenni looked at him. “Oh, my suns. She gave it to you? You’ve tried it?”

“Yes! As a matter of fact, I have.”

Lenni’s gray eyes bored into him. “She’s really gotten to you, hasn’t she.”

“It’s not your business.”

“Yeah, it’s my business. I love you, Dana. You and your fucking real. She’s not what you think, don’t you see? She’s, oh hell, she’s a queen bee. Dedicated to the propagation of her species. There’s no dropping out for her. I’m talking strict behavior modification, baby. She wears a cybernetic centipede, doesn’t she? She’s a lifer.”

Dana’s heart constricted and dropped out of him like a brick striking the concrete, breaking apart in a million pieces. “Is this why you took all the trouble, Len?” He jumped up off the door stoop. “To prove I’m a fool?”

“To prove you can’t think of her as a woman.” Lenni rose unsteadily. “Queen bees, they rip the guts out of their lovers. She’s something else, Dana. Something you can’t conceive of even in a swing’s notion of gender. Something you can’t apply your concepts of family law to. Something you can’t love.

“I don’t want to hear this. Of course she’s got obligations to her offspring and her people. She’s always been frank about that. But don’t tell me I can’t love her. It is real, what’s between us. Tatiana is a great lady. A damma.”

Dana stalked away.

“Yeah, she’s a damma,” Lenni yelled after him. “Closest translation: mother with egg.”

*   *   *

Pale limbs on the red satin dress she shed across the bed. Wings arching up, beating, lifting her in amorous hover and swoop. Tender fingers guided the needle for Dana. She stroked his burgeoning genderization as if she’d invented Man herself.

“Excuse me, Dana Anad,” interrupted MU from the bedroom’s speaker. “That is the last t-shot you’re going to be able to handle.”

Tatiana laughed. She took the flask of amante from between her breasts, uncapped it, scooped up a dewdrop. “I’ll take care of him, MU.”

“The last t-shot for quite a long while,” MU persisted. “You’re going to burn.

Honey and haze flowed over Dana again. He could think of nothing else but her again.

He struggled against the pull of pleasure. He sat up, seized Tatiana’s slender hand. Examined the sapphire-blue spikes of the cybernetic centipede, whose head wriggled deeper into her palm. He cut his finger on the centipede’s razor-edged neckridge. A drop of his blood slid down the crescent moon.

“My darling Tatiana.” He drew a deep breath. “Amante isn’t just an anesthetic, is it? And you found out I was a swing before you came to me, didn’t you? So you knew I had pain. Worse, you knew that I was vulnerable. Yeah, a sophisticated entity would know all about swings, and you’re nothing if not sophisticated. And your affair with me? Has it been a pleasant interlude before you go back to Edstuart? I hope it’s been pleasant. Because you can never divorce him. You can never leave Solemn Deux.” He threw down her hand. “What I don’t understand is why you had to make me love you. I would have found Edstuart and the offspring for you anyway. Your credits would have been good enough. It’s just a job. Why have you done this to me? Why?”

Sorrowfully she arose from the bed, then glanced at him with glittering eyes. “You mean you’ve found them?”

“Of course. MU is the best. Is it because you didn’t know what I’d do when Edstuart told me about you, if you hadn’t secured my loyalty?” Dana wiped the smear of amante off his arm. “So. Am I addicted to this crap? Just what is amante, Tatiana? You tell me.”

“You’re not addicted,” she said hastily. “You’re not Triadian. What did that bastard Eddie tell you?”

“That you’ll do something terrible to Sha!n. I can only assume he means you’ll abuse the offspring. Did you know there’s a rumor Triadians butcher and eat their progeny? Is that why Edstuart took Sha!n and ran away from you, even though it means he’s broken the vows of your precious Solemn Deux?”

“Abuse! Butcher and eat my Sha!n? Oh, I would never do such a thing. Sha!n is the precious one, the Point of the Triad. Eddie is such a coward. Don’t be a fool, Dana! And don’t look at me like that. Your ghastly rumor is pathetic. I would never harm Sha!n, you must believe me.”

“Believe you? You have me code your injunction incorrectly in front of an Interworld judge. Prefect Tule says you’ve deceived me. Lenni, too. Your deux-partner is terrified of you. You’ve done nothing to make me believe you. You’ve done nothing but make love to me, damma of Triad. But that’s your function, isn’t it? Temple whore?”

“I see. Then I need not try to convince you that I really do care for you, counselor of Nexus.”

“That’s right.”

But Dana did want her to try.

“Very well.” She pulled on the red satin dress. “And,” that sideways glance, “you’ve spoken with Prefect Tule?”

“Yes. Are you also a criminal on Triad?”

“I suppose I am. I’ve come too close to revealing the Mystery of the Triad, dear counselor. By coming to you for help. When did you see him?”

“At Interworld Court, before the hearing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Our introduction was not exactly amicable. He demanded I drop the case. Leave you alone, abandon you. And I. I didn’t want to do that. I thought I was defending your interworld right to neutral counsel.”

“I see, I see. Then truly the time for Holy Triad is near.”

She grew suddenly distracted, withdrawn, pale.

Despite his anger, Dana came to her side and held her.

“Edstuart said that, too. ‘The time is near.’ Tatiana, what is the Holy Triad?”

“It is my duty as damma. Only I can initiate it. Oh, I’m sorry if I’ve wronged you, my sweet Dana. That bungler, Tule.” Her face twisted with contempt. Her voice was harsh. “Tule failed me. He was supposed to enforce our custody agreement. He is the Keeper, you see. He should never have allowed Eddie to get this far. I deny blame for resorting to outsiders.” She turned to him with the shimmering look that always pierced him. “But not you, Dana. You’ve never failed me. You must not fail me now.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“You know how to contact Eddie?”


“Contact him now. Let me speak to him. Maybe we can come to terms.”

MU placed the connection, returned with the response at once. “They’ve gone.”

“Of course!” cried Tatiana. “He knows the Prefect is here? Oh, of course he’ll flee. We’ve got to find them. Please, Dana! They’re leaving Nexus, I know it. How could they get offworld without attracting notice of the world brain?”

Dana said, “They’ll go to Porthandle.”

*   *   *

Porthandle crashes around Dana like a planetary sea. Sleet beats down. A thousand stratospheric voices shout, pressure exploding against pressure. Then abrupt, eerie silence until the living world gasps for breath again.

The old wachter basks in the sensation Tatiana has created. Maybe it deserves some glory. It brought them to the right place.

Lashed to the launch pad, the great silver whale of the starbarge awaits departure. Oscillating green and purple lights ring the loading dock. Plumes of mist twist up.

Grizzled dockworkers stare at them. Indentured laborers make lewd noises. News reporters crowd around, flashing cameras and recorders.

The old wachter beams and preens. The hero who captured the Triadian, an illegal alien once she attempted unauthorized exit from Nexus by tres- passing through the skin.

“In a bronchiole?” exclaim the reporters, furrowing their faces. “During open port?”

But, after all, bronchioles have been used for quick exits before. It’s not such a scandal, Dana thinks, as the hoopla would warrant. Except for Tatiana, the beautiful winged lady. Triadian damma. Butcher of her progeny, the rumor says.

Then Dana glimpses the one who has followed them, the one who has dogged their path and harassed them all this time. Patting the old wachter’s backplate, chucking the wire rat under its scruffy chin.

Lenni. In a dockworker’s jumpsuit, almost frail in stasis, with a pale earnest face. Talking it up with the reporters. Saying who knows what about Tatiana.

Damn you, Lenni, Dana wants to shout. But the shout sticks in his throat. The sour lump on his tongue slides down to his tonsils. He can barely swallow now.

You’re going to burn, MU said.

Exhausted, defeated, aching with serious t-burn, Dana doesn’t know if he can stand himself for another minute, much less another tomorrow. And all because of her.


She kneels in misery. Her chest rattles as if her lungs are crumbling. Sweat slicks the lavender curves of her cheekbones, running in rivulets down her neck. The cybernetic centipede ripples wildly around her finger, sapphire fur clacking. Its bloody head rears and wallows in the palm of her hand. The crescent moon of its neckridge slashes her hand.

Only her wings still arch magnificently above her tiny, crumpled body.

The pain of separation. How could Dana have doubted her?

Lenni was wrong. Whatever else it does, amante is an anesthetic. For the unspeakable pain of the damma of Triad, yes, intended for that. But whatever else she felt or did not feel for Dana, Tatiana had pitied his pain.

The shimmering slanting eyes glance up at him, filled with that piercing look he thought he knew. Then dart away, toward some distant vision.

Prefect Tule.

The monstrous Triadian stands before the dock of the starbarge, brandishing the gleaming crescent moon of his knife. The arrogance of him, the flagrant disregard for interworld law. The terror he strikes in these frail elegant people, his own people, to whom he bears so little resemblance.

Dana despises him.

“Tatiana,” Prefect Tule intones. “The Time is at hand. We cannot wait to veil the Mystery from these outsiders’ eyes. You must do it now. You must initiate the Triad.”

Tatiana gasps. Then, amazingly, stands up, stands tall. An unknown strength visibly tightens her. She brushes sweat and tears from her cheeks with a slender hand.

“How dare you address me so,” she says regally.

“My pardon, Damma. But your duty.”

“I will remind you of your duty, Prefect. Do it, and leave these outsiders alone. I command you not to harm them. Dana,” she says, “tell the wachter to release me.”

MU’s portable jack does its work. The override finally kicks in as the old wachter fields questions from the gathering crowd.

The steelyn cords fall away.

She rubs the circulation back into her arms, finds her celadon flask, pours out the last drops, slathers amante over her throat and breasts.

Then she takes Dana’s shoulders.

“Dana Anad,” she says. “In my pain before, I spoke nonsense. I meant nothing. Do you forgive me?”

He has no answer.

“Please forgive me.” She loosens his own steelyn bonds. “No, you’re not a man. Not a man or a woman, but always my Dana. Find your balance and harmony, my love. Between good and evil lies objectivity. Between light and dark rises the dawn. Between male and female stands Dana, the Loyal One. When everything else changes, the one I will love forever. This is real. This is the truth. Yes?”

Dana sees Edstuart and the offspring at the far side of the dock, huddled together.

“But my Dana,” Taitiana says, “there is another kind of love. Mother love.”

Edstuart is rubbing the offspring’s head, murmuring baby talk. He looks up, sees Dana, and from across the distance, Dana looks into the Triadian’s eyes. In those eyes once filled with bafflement and sorrow, Dana sees terror. Bright brittle terror.

“Don’t go to them,” says Dana, filled with dread.

Sha!n sees her.

“Damma!” A weird shriek issues from the tiny gleaming mouth.

Dana tries to restrain her, but she breaks away.

She runs to the offspring, takes Sha!n into her arms. Their wings buzz joyfully around them, forming a chatoyant halo.

Tatiana rips her bodice down, gives her breast to the offspring.

Sha!n suckles.

At the taste of her, its eyes bulge and its babyish cheeks turn hard. It sinks its long, curved teeth into her. The crescent moons flash, tearing open her chest.

Dana runs to her, but Prefect Tule kicks him aside.

The Prefect advances on Edstuart. Edstuart kneels, trembling violently. At the sight and smell of Sha!n assault, his skin hardens, cracks, splits open like a molting dragonfly. The Prefect swings the knife down Edstuart’s back, hastening that which has begun.

Edstuart in a trance, body split and oozing, stumbles toward Tatiana and Sha!n. He embraces the bloodied couple, then tenderly bites Sha!n’s head off. Blood gushes from the tiny, quivering neck. Tatiana, still moving somehow, reaches around Edstuart’s waist, grips one flap of his split back, pulls the flesh free of his spine.

The three bodies entwine, disintegrate, merge.


The gore speedily coagulates, transmutes, forming a blood-slick veined globe of rippling flesh, over which a thick white skin begins to grow.

“The Holy Triad!” cries Prefect Tule. “The World Egg!”

Dana crumples to the pavement, hand at his throat.

“Dana, baby.” Lenni comes and holds him. “Listen to me. They’re only larvae, swarm-born.”

“Outsider!” Prefect Tule shouts. “Do not denigrate what you do not understand. They are the Chosen of Triad. They sacrifice their puny privileged lives to the World Egg. From this a million new citizens will spring. It is glorious!”

“Please listen,” Lenni says, stroking Dana’s cheek. “Terran bees, ants and termites, certain flies do this. The fertile ones, the reproductive elite of the swarm, produce the offspring that, when ripened, acts as the catalyst. When the time is right, the mother host yields royal nectar. The catalytic agent is stimulated, consumes the mother host, and the male partner completes the synthesis, sacrificing the nutrients of his body. Their union produces that. It’s a pupa, containing genetic material for another swarm. Without the pupa, and the few who must create it, their race would die.”

“Outsiders!” Prefect Tule charges at them, swinging the crescent knife. “See how you try to interfere! Look at your repugnance! You should not have witnessed the great Mystery. No outsider has ever seen the Holy Triad. This is Sacrilege! You must die!”

With a swagger and a sneer, Lenni confronts the bloody edge of the remorseless knife. “Leave us alone, you ugly bastard. Your Damma commanded you.”

The Prefect sheathes the knife. “You are correct,” he concedes. “But begone, outsiders. You’ve seen enough. This is a matter for the Keeper of the Triad now.”

The World Egg rolls fitfully. Odd extrusions thrust here and there through the moist, pale skin.

Prefect Tule fashions a hexagonal box, spitting wax from his mouth. Next he fills the box with dark purple jelly he spurts from an organ in his lower torso. With his huge long forearms, he carefully, laboriously lifts the fitful World Egg and deposits it inside, sealing the box with more wax.

“What about Tatiana?” Dana whispers. “What about her? What about her pain?”

“She has no more pain,” says Prefect Tule. “She has fulfilled her destiny.”

“Come on, Dana,” says Lenni. “Come home with me, baby.”

Dana looks at Lenni, and he sees a face that is neither male nor female, but human. Always human. A face filled with compassion and love. A beautiful face. He takes Lenni’s hand and together they walk down into the dawn.

Afterword: I’m a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, the late eminent feminist science fiction author.

Of her many books, The Left Hand of Darkness is perhaps my favorite. It features a hero who periodically “goes into heat,” becoming a woman.

When Robert Silverberg announced that he was accepting stories for the Universe 2 anthology in 1992, I was eager to write my own gender-bending story.

If you enjoyed this story, please leave a tip in the tip jar at

“Triad” is in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle world wide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at

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We all could use a laugh these days, so I present for your enjoyment “Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis”. The story was commissioned by editor Margaret Weis and published in the anthology Fantastic Alice, New Stories from Wonderland by Ace Books. The story was republished in my first story collection, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories by Bast Books. Here are what of the some of the critics say about the collection:
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis
I want to thank you all for inviting me here tonight to this, the thirtieth anniversary of my Fall into Wonderland. Yes, thank you, thank you very much. I would never have come if the Dodo hadn’t promised there’d be a fat speaker’s fee in it for me.
It’s not as though any of you have kept in touch. It’s not as though you’ve given me a jingle just to say, “How’s tricks, Alice?” It’s not as though you give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to offend. It’s not as though you’ve got the slightest notion what I’ve been through all these years.
Whatever happened to Alice, you want to know? She was, after all, such a strange little girl. Ever a scowl. Ever a snippy word. Had herself an attitude.
What could I do, what else was I fit for, after Wonderland? Of course I became a writer as my big sister encouraged me to do. You should see how much money I owe her. Oh, but you’ve never heard of me. You’ve never seen me on the list of the top ten richest writers in the world. You’ve never seen a trilogy of movies based on my books.
What are my books? Surely you’ve read The Shapeshifters, Down and Out in Berkeley and Boston, and TartGate: the Swindle and Tea-tray. Thank you, thank you very much. You congratulate me. How glamorous, Alice, you say. How exciting! What an adventure!
Have you got the slightest notion how the publishing business works these days?
One slaves in solitude over a book for two or three years, compromising health, sanity, and financial security. One’s editor pays an advance that covers the bills for two or three months, not counting food, phone service, and lottery tickets. One’s book gets noticed for two or three weeks. Booklist is snide, TLS brutal. After production costs, printing, paper, binding, marketing expenses, and general overhead to keep the publisher in posh digs, one earns two or three cents in royalties. One’s book is remaindered in two or three days while one’s editor implores one to get off that lazy bum and write ten more before the year-end.
Never mind the fantasies of hanging oneself. These will pass.
Who would ever aspire to a literary career? One would have to be raving mad.
But you don’t care. That’s on me, you say. Get a job. You don’t give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to suggest you’re an insensitive dullard who would rather veg out in front of the tellie every night than read a good book now and then. You don’t want to hear about the troubles of a girl of forty. The compulsive weaving of daisy-chains. The soporifics acquired without a prescription. The anonymous encounters in seedy laundromats with persons who refuse to make change. The arrests for disorderly conduct in tony shopping malls during lunch hour. Oh well, you say. You’re an Artist, Alice. Drowning in one’s own sorrow. It’s in the cards.
You want to romanticize Wonderland. You want to hear how cool it was. What a rave. What a romp. What a beneficent influence Falling into Wonderland had on my life. How Wonderland transformed me.
Transformed us all.
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the White Rabbit? Every advantage, that’s what he had. Got admitted to Harvard Law School. Graduated summa cum laude. Joined the blue-chip law firm of O’Hare & Leporiday. Made partner in five years. White-collar crime and commodities fraud his speciality.
Yet there was always something too precious, too fussbudgety, about him. I suppose we should have seen it coming when the White Rabbit became an animal rights activist. Joined Small Mammals Against Savage Humans. Stands in SMASH picket lines outside Saks Fifth Avenue every Saturday, flinging ketchup on ladies in fur coats. Frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. Travels round the country delivering speeches supporting cruelty-free cosmetics dressed in a Givenchy gown, spike heels, and full makeup.
His poor old mum, whom you never hear about, nearly had a stroke when he posed, shaved bald and nude, for the cover of Vanity Fair. She calls me. “Where did I go wrong?” she wants to know. “Every advantage, that’s what he had.”
“Exactly, mum,” I tell her. “It’s postmodern life. Life after Wonderland. None of us knows who we are anymore.”
You’re silent now. Not chuckling? Not applauding? Do I suggest that the White Rabbit’s youthful experiences underground had some bearing upon his wantonness later in life? Do I suggest that Wonderland was an incitement to explore the dangerous depths of the subconscious mind? An inducement to abandon the moral strictures and conventions that Society, our schools, and our families have struggled so mightily and with the best of intentions to impose upon us?
In exchange for what? Illicit freedom?
Uncommon nonsense, you say? Ridiculous? Paranoid?
Well. It makes no difference to me if the White Rabbit pickets KFC franchises dressed in a chicken suit, but his law partners didn’t feel the same way. Hounded him out of the firm. Of course he’s suing. His mum won’t speak to him. And he still frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. You may draw your own conclusions.
But that’s the White Rabbit, you say. The White Rabbit is a shining example of the Dr. Spock generation. Those coddled Boomer kids. Me yesterday, Me tomorrow, and Me today. Give ‘em what they want when they want it. Every advantage, that’s what they’ve had. And see how they turn out?
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the Mock Turtle? There’s another casualty. Diagnosed schizophrenic with delusions of bovinity. But since when has mental illness ever interfered with stardom? Since when has delusion ever impeded huge fame?
Those big brown eyes, that throbbing tenor raised in song! The sighs, the sobs. The disingenuous self-pity, the sudden sulking silences. Those maudlin dance tunes! What tabloid on the grocery store checkout stand hasn’t told the tale of how he became the idol of millions overnight? Mock Turtle, the King of Sop.
Of course Wonderland left its mark on him. I only became aware of how deeply damaged he was when we dated ten years later. The Mock Turtle is not exactly a fellow you want to introduce to your mum. But when we met again on the beach at Mazatlan, I fell for him hard. Always was a soft touch for his Poor Me act. One day he took me to a Miami Dolphins game. We stood up for the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and what do you suppose he said?
“A wedge of lemon in my glass
Of salt-rimmed tequila;
And with my French fries dipped in lard,
One burger
In a bun
With mustard and relish for all.”
Eating disorder, nothing. Obsessed with food, he was! Always crooning about soup and fish sticks. A foodaholic, a gourmand in extremis. A skinny reptile struggling to get out of that shell. Food fetishes? Try peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches. Couldn’t get through the day without a box of Ritz crackers. No wonder he packed on the pounds. Heart attack material, that’s what he became. And that’s what did the Mock Turtle in. Right in the middle of a performance on a Las Vegas soundstage. That’s the truth—it was a coronary. Not the booze, the pills, the teenage girls.
Of course everyone knows the consumption of mood-altering substances was commonplace in Wonderland. The mysterious liquids in those little stoppered bottles. The cakes of unknown ingredients left out on a side table. The smoke twisting up from herbaceous tinder. Could one contend that the fungus which induced the sensation of growing larger or smaller actually altered the body, such as steroids do? Or merely altered the mind? Though plenty of body-altering there. Take one’s liver, for starters. Never mind one’s brain cells. But oh so good, as the song goes. Can you imagine enduring the rat race without coke and Jack on the rocks? No wonder so many of us in postmodern society seek consolation in chemicals.
Who can blame us, after Wonderland?
To read the rest of the popular humorous story and discover whatever happened to the Caterpillar, the King and Queen of Hearts, the Gryphon, the Cheshire Cat and other denizens of Wonderland, please go my Patreon page at You’ll find new and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie recommendations, and more exclusively for patrons.
Meanwhile, check out Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo.
On Kindle at US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
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I’ve read and presently read all kinds of stories and books—mainstream like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, historicals like Gone With the Wind and Wolf Hall, mysteries like the Raymond Chandler books, romance like the Nora Roberts books, high fantasy like The Mists of Avalon, urban fantasy like the Kim Harrison books, science fiction like Hyperion and Dune, and creative nonfiction like The Devil in the White City.
But my favorite books remain the books I read as a child—Charlotte’s Web with talking animals, all four of the Mary Poppins books with talking animals, and Kipling’s Jungle Books, also with talking animals.
I suppose the talking animals ruined me in my childhood as a reader; I grew weary of mainstream writers obsessing about their problems with their families and their love lives and struggling to put a beautiful spin on every word. My mother gave me her own 1936 edition of Little Women. At eight years old, I hated that book, in spite of Jo. Now, years later, when the new film of Little Women was released, I tried the book again. I couldn’t get past the first thirty pages. In spite of (or because of) Jo.
I found compelling reading in the bold, tight style of a Chandler or even a Wharton (though Edith obsessed too much about bad marriages). I actively disliked and was put off by some writers’ overwrought style. (Still am.)
And I welcomed worlds other than our own, mind-boggling ideas, philosophical ideas, and offbeat characters.
Which brings me to Jo Walton’s blogs in the mid-2000s about genre books, some of which are collected in What Makes This Book So Great.
Walton is a book commentator and a fantasy writer herself; her blogs and commentary about books appeared on the Tor website. Her collection of blogs was reviewed in Locus Magazine and points she made about genre books—especially the use of metaphor—became emblazoned on my reader’s (and writer’s) mind.
From Walton’s Blog:
“I was reading A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. This is a mainstream story in which a female academic buys a bottle containing a djinn and gets it to give her wishes. It’s a mainstream story because she finds the bottle on something like page 150 of 175. In a genre story she’d have found the bottle on the first page. It has mainstream pacing and expectations of what’s important. The story is really about how simple answers are not fulfilling. The djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link’s zombies aren’t a metaphor. People talk about SF as a literature of ideas, as if you can’t find any ideas in Middlemarch or Rainbow Six! I don’t think [science fiction] is so much the literature of ideas as the literature of world-building.”
What does Walton mean?
The world-building in science fiction and fantasy is the overarching metaphor—you don’t fly in the space of your mind (mainstream), you actually really fly in space (SF/F). You don’t confront the dragons of your emotional demons, you really mount a dragon and fly (SF/F).
So genre readers are accustomed—and expect—to enter an entire metaphorical world. Genre readers take literally anything that happens in the world.
And so. You, as a writer, may write “literary” metaphors in your genre fiction at your peril. Everything is REAL to the genre reader and a misplaced metaphor—when absolute fidelity to your world is crucial—can throw your whole story off.
Before I delve into some examples from recent SFF stories I’ve read, I’ll add one more observation from Jo Walton. She’s talking about how naming characters can go wrong, but her example is appropriate to my criticism below.
From Jo Walton:
“This led me to pondering that common pitfall of making up fantasy names: hitting on something that already means something else, and is thus inadvertently funny. “Mein” to me means “noodles” as in “chow mein” and “lo mein.” I don’t know if it’s authentic Chinese or Western restaurant Chinese. Because I’m aware it means noodles, I find it hard to take it entirely seriously as the name of an evil enemy. Next, bring on “the war with the linguini!” and “the war with the tortellini!” Fantasy names create atmosphere, and this is not the atmosphere you want…”
Point taken. Now on my specific observations about the use of metaphor in genre fiction and in a published story I recently read.
To read the rest of my critique of a SFF story I recently read that misuses metaphor, please join my Patreon page at and help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge, if you like.
Visit me at for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!
From the author of Summer of Love (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
The Gilded Age (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
The Garden of Abracadabra (“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy . . . I want to read more!) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Arachne (a Locus Hardover Bestseller) is an ebook on US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in France Kindle, Germany Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Spain Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Brazil Kindle, India Kindle, and Japan Kindle. Back in Print! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Cyberweb (sequel to Arachne) is on US Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also Kindle worldwide on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Brazil Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, India Kindle, Italy Kindle, Japan Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, and Spain Kindle. Back in Print at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle world wide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
One Day in the Life of Alexa (“Five stars! An appealing narrator and subtly powerful emotional rhythms”). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. Order the beautiful trade paperback NOW IN PRINT at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition, A Lily Modjeska Mystery (Five stars) On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. SOON IN PRINT!
Shaken (in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Hummers (in Fifth Annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Daughter of the Tao (in Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn) on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in AustraliaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Every Mystery Unexplained (in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tomorrow’s Child (In Active Development at Universal Pictures) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria (in Full Spectrum 5) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
U F uh-O (Five Stars!) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tesla, A Screenplay on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
My Charlotte: Patty’s Story on Barnes and Noble, US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Netherlands, and Mexico.
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Please visit me at Lisa Mason’s Official Website for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, and blogs, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!
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The Oniomancer
The Chinadoll denies she’s a thief. She swears she’s never stolen anything. She finds things, that’s all. She’s always found things. From street curbs and trash bins and secret city places, things come to her like hungry cats.
She’s delivering a Priority One Hour to some bigwig at the Hyatt Hotel when she finds the cube. Talking heads from the tube, with their techs and camera crews, are swarming all over the lobby. Craning their necks to get a gander at the headline of the hour.
Fame scenes cut no ice with the Chinadoll. Not when she’s hustling down another zip code. The suits check out her fuchsia croptop, fourteen motley hoops banging down her hearwings. Lone Ranger mask drawn in kohl across her peepers. Beat-around black leather, rude girl rags. Security guards glare at her like she just crawled out from under something.
Then there it is: a small object getting kicked around by all those shuffling feet. Tumbling here, tumbling there across the tessellated marble floor. The Chinadoll can empathize.
So she scoops.
It kind of bounces up into her hand, this perfect cube. Size of a medium Rubik’s. Iridescent like mom o’ pearl. Strung from a stud on its crown on a superfine chain with the high, silvery sheen of platinum. It hums. Not a machine hum, but a soft rolling purr-purr.
Little hungry cats. How the Chinadoll loves you.
Quick as a wink, she stashes the cube in her T-shirt pocket. Dashes across the lobby, takes the elevator upstairs, makes the delivery. The bigwig’s got a girlfriend lounging on the bed, so he doesn’t come on to her like some of the drop-offs do.
Down she goes, zooming through the lobby again, and the scene has suddenly gotten weirder. Everybody jazzed, talking in loud, excited chatter. A voice of authority crackling with feedback issues garbled commands. “Nnnn—stay calm, and proceed in an orderly fashion—eeee!
She doesn’t stick around to find out what’s the hassle.
The cube pokes through her pocket like a Picasso nipple. A Real Find, Chinadoll. Not for nothing is she known as an oniomancer. And she thought she was down on her luck. Knows right away she can’t tell Flash about this. For sure, don’t let Bulldog see it.
Out at the rack, she unlocks her Schwinn.
From inside her pocket, the cube hiccups. The soft little sound of a lost thing that’s been found.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll came to see finding as a gift, though she didn’t always see it that way. She first discovered finding when she was a sorry little five-year-old named Suki Fong. It’s possible she found things before then. But that’s the first time she remembered the finding.
And what came after.
It was a fresh autumn day with a bit of wind, and Mama had come home from shopping on Grant Avenue. Pink cardboard boxes of dim sum and fried rice dangled from one of her hands, a whole roast chicken swung from the other. Papa was in the living room, watching ninja moves on Channel 60. All Chinatown smelled of Sunday supper.
The kids were in their playground: the sidewalk in front of Yick Sing Meat Market. Ben and Jimmy quarreled over a blue paper dragonfly kite. May and Kim whispered over a pocket mirror and a contraband lipstick May had shoplifted from Three Spirits Pharmacy.
Suki, the youngest of them by some years, sat alone on the curb and sniffed roast chicken. “Go away, baby,” May had ordered. Jimmy had pushed her. So she scratched in the gutter by herself, hummed lullabies, picked at scraps. From the TV inside came clatter and shrill sounds. She could hear the bloodcurdling scream of some ninja lopping off a demon’s head, made tinny by Papa’s ancient Sony.
With that thin, scratchy scream, the finding feeling came. Empty cup contentment. Waiting but not waiting. Nothing-full.
A crumpled wad, the soft gray-green of a dried herb, skittered past Suki’s toes. She scooped it, smoothed it flat across her knee. She saw small pictures on the crinkled paper strip. There was a tiny old-fashioned car and tinier pedestrians. A grand building with tall columns. On the other side, a curly-haired grandpa who wouldn’t look at her, but that was okay. Suki knew curly-haired grandpas didn’t look at a Chinese girl like her unless they had some evil on their minds.
She smiled. She smiles to this day at that tiny Model T.
From inside the apartment came Mama’s wail. “Cheat me! Mr. Yee cheat me! And rent due! I go back!” She ran out onto the street, dragon-faced. Stopped short in front of Suki.
“Oy!” Mama said. “What that you got there, girl?”
Suki held up her find.  Grateful for attention, any attention, from Mama.
She snatched the bill from Suki’s hand. “So here my ten dollar. Mr. Yee didn’t cheat me. Where you get this, girl?”
“I found it, Mama.”
Mama jerked Suki up off the curb by her skinny arm and hauled her inside. Suki heard May and Kim giggling.
“I say where you get this, girl?” Mama demanded,
“I found it, Mama. I found it.”
Mama slapped her across the face, one two three times. Suki’s lip stung against her teeth. She tasted shame.
“I teach you not to be a liar,” Mama said. “Youie? Youie?” Papa grunted, tore his eyes away from the TV. “This girl, this runt, this accident, she steal money from her own mama. And rent due. You teach her not to steal.”
“But I found it, Papa. I found it!”
Mama slapped her again. Papa stood, unbuckled his belt, slid the leather strip from his pant loops. Mama wrestled Suki over the kitchen table, pinned her arms down on the greasy oilcloth. Then Papa lashed the belt across her tiny butt, smack smack smack. Suki couldn’t count how many times.
That’s when she learned not to show or tell.
She would have given up finding, if she’d known how. She didn’t try to do it any more than she’d made Mama forget the birth control on the night five years ago when Papa knocked her up with a fifth child. A pinch-faced, unwanted little Suki.
But not long after her first humiliation, some-thing else tumbled into her hands like the temptation of an evil spirit.
Mama sent her out before dark for cooking oil. It was a lovely cool evening, the breezes scented with coming winter. Lipped with arabesques of light, Cathay House Pagoda shone against the scarlet dusk. Suki skipped down Grant Avenue, filled with the unaccountable joy of childhood.
At the edge of her eye, she saw something. A scrap bounding across the concrete like a wind-blown leaf.
The finding feeling came. A ghost push. Seeing and not seeing.
She scooped.
It was another piece of that velvety green paper. This time a cocky, bushy-haired fellow looked her right in the eye. Andy Jackson. A twenty dollar bill! She could hardly believe it, having only just learned the dark passions such velvety green paper inspired.
She carefully folded the bill, tucked it in her jeans pocket. She brought the cooking oil back to Mama. The next day, she bought herself a bag of candied pineapple rings at Mrs. Lee’s sweetmeat shop, a jade ring at Canton Bazaar, a tiny ivory horse at Shanghai Fine Arts, and one of those polyester bags that passes for embroidered silk, all green and purple chrysanthemums. She kept a dollar ninety-seven in change.
And said nothing to anyone.
But secrets can be hard to keep.
*   *   *
The streets around the Hyatt are jumping. State-of-siege cha-cha-cha. The wind socks grit in the Chinadoll’s eyes, sending tear tracks down her facepaint. She dodges cop cars, minding business.
Bucks her bike, rolls onto Drumm Street. Hauls out her cell phone, punches up headquarters. The dispatcher at Speedster & Company has her on for one last pickup at 815 Market.
Shoot! She’ll have to pedal her ass eight blocks west on a slow but steady uphill grade. It’s nearly five o’clock in the p.m. and she’s cat-o-nine-tails beat.
For luck, she fishes the cube from her T-shirt pocket, checks it out. The closure on the clasp is out of whack, so the lock won’t lock. No wonder someone lost it. What a cheap piece of trash, this clasp. She can’t imagine securing a chain of such fine links to hold a cube of such rare beauty with a safety catch that isn’t secure and can’t catch onto anything.
She bites the clasp, shaping the metal with her teeth. There you go, baby.
The cube feels warm, tingling, jingling, like a fistful of hot copper.
Not for the first time, the Chinadoll wonders how things of true value can be treated by the world with such disrespect.
*   *   *
Finding—it was Suki’s pleasure, the search for treasure amid the doldrums of daily life. Just a kid, she stalked the streets alone.
And found things all the time.
Sure, there was junk. She found knuckletop computers the size of a postage stamp. What excuses did the scamps around town tell their lovers when they didn’t message? She found flat plastic rectangles with miniature holograms and necklaces of numbers. How many credit lines got hacked due to lost credit cards? She found Ziploc bags filled with white powder that tasted bitter. What illicit dreams had been abandoned in shadowed alleys?
These things meant nothing to a kid. Just junk.
Some things, though, were truly treasure. She filled soup cans with coins, preferring pennies and dimes. Made a twelve-foot daisy chain out of red and blue rubber bands and paperclips in cool shapes. Stockpiled chewing gum packets and breath mint rolls, hundreds of them perfectly packaged, the safety seals still sealed.
She saw treasure everywhere, the hint of it, the glint of it.
She hid everything in a secret place.
Finding seemed so natural in the free-for-all of the City. Maybe the wrong of it was she got something for nothing. Mama said they had to pay their dues. Papa said they had to work hard. And finding was so easy. Things fell into her hands with no work on her part. No dues paid. That had to be why she couldn’t show or tell.
Too easy. She had to wonder if other people found things, too. Surely they must.
In a bold mood one day, she asked her sister May, “Do you ever, like, find things? You know, on the street?’
“What do you mean, Suki?” May said sharply.
Bad timing. That afternoon, May had seen that Suki had seen her smoking Marlboros with her boyfriend in Washington Square Park.
“Find things on the street? Like some bag lady, some street person, some Vietnamese? You stealing again, Suki? You’re stealing again, you little creep, you spy. Mama!”
Mama searched the bedroom Suki shared with her sisters and found her secret place—two Kinney shoeboxes beneath her underwear and socks. Mama found all things she’d found and took them away. Even the jade ring and the ivory horse and the purple-green bag, pretty things Suki had bought, fair and square. Mama had Papa take off his belt again.
She should have known then she should have given up finding for good. Turn away from the shimmer when she saw it. Finding should have been like any other unhealthy habit, subject to will and discipline.
But Papa’s belt, Mama’s slaps, her brothers’ and sisters’ jeers, they insulted her. Wronged her.
And like a benevolent devil confirming her conviction, not long after Mama took her things away, she found her first Big Find. Lying right in the middle of the sidewalk on Broadway near the corner of Kearny.
From the edge of her eye, she saw the glitter. Gutter-bound daystar. Maybe worthless, maybe wealth. She guzzled the empty cupful. She scooped.
It was a solid silver key with a handle in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Inside one heavy loop, next to the jeweler’s stamp of authentication, was a Tiffany trademark. Inside another loop, the logo of the car the key fit. A Mercedes Benz.
The silver dazzled in the sunlight as she turned the key over in her hand.
Suki knew at once the key was a sign. An omen. A promise that the best revenge would be hers one day. Never mind that the lock the key fit was nowhere in sight.
She walked back through Chinatown in a dream.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll slings the superfine chain over her fuchsia croptop, dropping the cube inside her T-shirt. It nestles against her skin, stinging her cleavage like dry ice. She picks up the package at 815 Market, drops it off at the Civic Center. Then scoots back to the headquarters of Speedster & Company for her daily bread.
She skids Market, slides New Montgomery, bops onto Mission. A ghost-gray candy cotton of fog rolls in from the ocean, chilling her bones. Then her hearwings yow with a bike messenger’s cry, an earsplitting banshee shriek.
“Yee Wee Wing Fooong! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Ain’t he sweet. That’s Flash’s yell for the Chinadoll.
*   *   *
After Suki found the silver key, she started a new stash. She found new secret places. When fall term began at Chang Wo Elementary, she kept her treasure in her school locker where Mama would never find it.
She liked school. She didn’t understand most of what they tried to teach her—having learned words like “rapacious” and “perspicacious” from Jimmy’s Fantastic Four comic books—but she was quiet and did what they told her and kept to herself.
She found lots of things in the school halls. Bottles of Robitussin Extra-Strength Formula; packages of Trojan rubbers; cartons of Camel nonfilters; a pair of soft turquoise mittens spangled with solar chips that kept the winter chill off her hands.
She loved those mittens.
She developed standards. She no longer took the worst junk, baby stuff like rubber bands. She kept three Kinney shoeboxes in her school locker, one for junk worth taking, one for cool things, one for actually valuable things. She carried the silver key in her jeans pocket. But she never showed it to anyone.
And she might have still liked school and done what they told her if she hadn’t found the ball of wastepaper.
It was early March, just before spring break, and the school halls were charged with the tension of tests being taken. There she sat in the girls’ lavatory, perched on a potty after taking a tinky. Pondering how she, of all twelve-year-old people, could possibly write an essay about the doctrine of manifest destiny on her history exam.
Suddenly a ball of wastepaper bounced merrily in, as if someone had flung it under the stall door. She picked it up, smoothed out a sheet filled with teeny, tiny rectangles.
The time was half-past nine. She was half awake. She walked out of the stall, gawking, doing a slow eureka. Then a hall monitor burst in the lavatory before she could think or explain. The monitor dragged her down to the principal’s office.
Then everyone got dragon and talked at her too fast in English.
The ball of wastepaper turned out to be a crib sheet for a test in a class she wasn’t even taking. No one cared. She got detention for the rest of the semester. They couldn’t prove a thing, but a report that she was a cheater went on her permanent record that was transferred when she started Galileo High.
At home, Papa got out the belt. Mama’s face got dragon every time she looked at her. May and Kim, who were prom queens at Galileo, wouldn’t say hi in the halls. Ben, who’d become assistant manager at Chung Quon Imports, declared that everyone in Chinatown knew Suki was a cheater, a liar, and a thief, and took his belt to her for shaming the family. Jimmy, starting at City College in business administration, made her lick his shoes.
She ran away. The cops did their own finding and brought her back. She cut school. The principal put her on probation. She flunked classes. Papa took his belt to her until her back was riddled with scars.
She tried to reform. She did community service at an old people’s home. She ran errands for Mama, cleaned the whole apartment every day after school. But five-dollar cans of litchi nuts, cut-crystal ashtrays, cashmere sweaters kept tumbling mysteriously into her hands, into her backpack, into her shopping bag. Store clerks accused her of shoplifting.
She gave everything back, but it was no use. On her seventeenth birthday, Galileo High expelled her. Mama said out.
Finding—it was Suki’s curse.
But as she trudged past Yick Sing Meat Market for the last time, something beckoned, shiny and sweet, at the curb. She laughed and did not laugh. She wept and did not weep. No one was there to say or not say what she was doing was wrong.
She scooped.
It was a charm, the kind that hooks onto a charm bracelet. A tiny ship of solid gold, three tiny sails unfurled with golden wind.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll spots Flash’s waist-length mane, crowned by the yellow propeller on his beanie, as he ducks down the stairwell into Speedster & Company’s basement digs. She does the duck down, too. The digs are full of razzmatazz and dooby stench and bike messengers yapping it up. Mohawk greased high over his coffee-bean brow, Mug the manager bends over the books of account.
The Chinadoll scores her commissions in cash, considers gourmet for dinner. Maybe a Martinetti dry salami and a bottle of Settler’s Creek Chablis instead of her usual peanuts and a pint of milk. Hey, this babe is rich.
Her whoop-dee-doo must be more than her daily sweat-and-tears ought to merit, because Flash is eyeballing her, grinning his zen grin.
“Hey, Chinadoll,” he says. “You find something today?”
“Nope. Stash your own trash.”
That guy. He of all people would know, just by looking at her, that she Found Major today.
Because Flash is an oniomancer, too.
*   *   *
There’s this poignant word of advice from the I Ching that goes, “It furthers you to cross the great water.” Meaning, move your hindquarters, fool.
Suki’s little golden ship was a sign.
From Chinatown, she fled to North Beach, past the strip joints on Broadway, the Italian eateries on Columbus, the literati cafés on Grant Avenue, and on to where the Tower Hotel crouched halfway up Telegraph Hill.
There Suki leased a room. Once a bohemian hotel, the only beats at the Tower now were dead-, not -nik. On the age-worn front door, someone had taped the sixteenth card of the Tarot. The wicked shrieking, lightning striking, an edifice of madness tumbling down.
Cozy place.
A room the size of Mama’s clothes closet with an odoriferous mattress and an orthopteran zoo, cost fifty George W’s a week. The communal john down the hall boasted special effects.
Then there was her lovely next-door neighbor.
“Hey. Hey. You. Bug,” said a voice like a rusted-out muffler as she lugged her meager possessions into her room.
A bunch of white kids at Galileo High called the Chinese kids that—bug—so she turned, assuming the voice was addressing her.
“Gimme five bucks, bug.”
An ugly hulk blocked her passage in the narrow hall. Her nose came up to the swastika hanging over his leather-vested chest. She gave him three dollars, which was all she had left after the hotel manager had taken two weeks’ in advance.
That was just the beginning. Bulldog bullied her daily. He extorted her money, stole her food, dirtied her clean towels. He hid water balloons over her door, set a mouse loose in her bed.
When she didn’t receive his direct attention, she cringed beneath his constant presence. The heavy-metal rock he blasted. The rattletrap van he parked in the towaway zone and revved up at five in the morning, waking her with its hacking motor, sending noxious fumes in her window. The steady stream of rag-tag women who, for reasons Suki could not fathom, found Bulldog endlessly fascinating. The notorious dealers, bikers, and rowdies who came by to pay their respects and wound up trying to beat Bulldog’s brains out. When the fistfights started around midnight, beefy bodies would crash against her flimsy wall like Godzilla taking on King Kong.
She considered her options. Trap guns, trip wires, poison. A black widow spider set loose in his bed. A pipe bomb under the wheels of his van would do the trick. Kablooey! at five in the morning. Or it was just possible she could electrify the communal shower from the phone booth in the hall.
She plotted how one day Bulldog would get his.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll clears out of Speedster & Company before Flash can case her much longer. The guy has an eye for detail, like any self-respecting oniomancer should. If she sticks around much longer, he’ll spot the cube nestled under her T-shirt, the superfine chain at the back of her neck.
She hightails it out of there. Up Third Street, to Sutter, to Kearny, to Columbus Avenue. Hustles down her humble repast at Rossi’s Market, beelines up Grant Avenue to the Tower. Scoots into her room.
Bulldog is nowhere in sight but through the wall she can hear his rusted-out voice jabbering next door. At least she knows where he is. She deadbolts her door, flops on her mattress, chills out.
Then she flips the superfine chain up off her neck, takes the cube in her fingertips. Gawks at it. Golly, what a Find. What a strange thing. A pretty-pretty, so shimmery. Full of wonder, she strokes the cube’s iridescent flanks. Smiles at its purr-purr.
Suddenly, the cube begins to glow, pale blue at first, then blushing violet. Warm, then hot. Hotter. Oh no! Has she inadvertently turned on some switch? She strokes its flanks again, frantically hoping to undo whatever she just did.
The purr becomes a roar.
The Chinadoll’s fingers sizzle.
*   *   *
Suki would have loved to rely on finding. Make it her career, explore the subtleties, refine her technique until she could call finding an Art. But rent came due, and she hadn’t found so much as a dime in three weeks.
She couldn’t rely on finding, not yet, that much was clear.
As for a regular job, what could she do? She was Suki Fong, high school expellee extraordinaire. She had no credentials, no connections, no confidence.
She found the Help Wanted flier thumb-tacked to a telephone pole on Sutter Street.
Speedster & Company welcomed any body as long as you could perform one simple task—pedal a bike all over town, uphill and down, eight hours a day, and not, repeat not, get yourself killed in traffic. Through the gridlock, in the rush hour, past massive buses and brute trucks, the lonely bike messenger tempted fate with the faith of a zealot.
For despite smart phones and emails, despite microwaves and pixels, the world still required the actual transfer of things. Contracts with original signatures. Computer equipment. Flowers and chocolate. Really hot lingerie.
The urgency of delivery lent drama. A messenger had honor. Responsibility. Gods and human beings have always depended upon messengers.
Suki said as much and more at her interview.
Mug the manager hired her on the spot. Paid a week’s wage in advance so she could eat a little better. “Kid, you gonna need some more meat on them bones,” he said and tucked a Luna bar in her hand.
In no time, Suki learned about Flash, Speedster’s star, the fastest, most reliable bike messenger in town. An urban legend all his own. Every messenger knew and respected him. To every passing messenger, he gave his tribal cry, “Yee Yee Heee! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Even the suits knew him, his waist-length hair, the ferret face with granny glasses, a red-and-yellow beanie with a yellow propeller that told which way his wind blew. Newspaper columnists wrote stories about him. How he’d broken his arm three times, for speed’s sake. How one day, when he’d accidentally locked himself out on the exterior stairwell of a first-floor office, he’d hopped over the railing and dropped to the concrete, only to be arrested by a passing cop.
Suki wasn’t in Flash’s league, not yet, but she was inspired by his example. She razored off all of her black waist-length hair except a strip down the middle of her scalp which she bleached platinum, and streaked broad strokes of fuchsia dye across the remaining crew-cut. She had a skull-and-crossbones set inside the petals of a rose tattooed on her left biceps. She blew the first ten Abe Lincolns she’d earned on kohl, vintage velvet, recycled leather.
She became the Chinadoll. She found face.
*   *   *
The cube turns scarlet neon, red-hot as an explosion. The room vibrates, then lurches crazily.
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It begins with a crow, always with a crow. Its raucous caw. A crow swoops down on the tilt of my countertop and pecks, hunting for meat, for anything in these hungry times.
I shout, I swing my broomstick. The crow flaps up and fearlessly returns, picking at my onions and parsnips shredded not by a cook’s blade, but by the bomb.
After the explosion, two crows circle over Saza’s baby. She leaves her daughter squalling in the rubble while she runs to the well for water to douse the flames turning her kiosk into ash. Before I can reach the child, before Saza can, the crows feed on the baby’s face.
Madness rules Illyria.
A Dox threw the bomb, I’m sure of this. The Dox don’t strap incendiaries to their chests and make mincemeat of themselves the way the Rippers do. The Dox blow up other people, then go watch porn on the Instrumentality.
Yesterday I saw Dox militiamen hanging around Coppermine Square. Laughing, toking ciggs while our townfolk went about their business, sifting through wares in the kiosks, sipping coffee in cafés, tossing vinjak down their throats at saloons. Hurrying off to their bureaucratic jobs in the ugly cinderblock buildings downtown.
I knew what they were. Tall and knotty, in the way of mountain folk. Long, bony faces, contemptuous eyes. Dox militiamen don’t wear military uniforms. No militiaman—Dox, Cath, or Ripper—wears a military uniform. Not these days.
They wore armbands with the sign of the Doublebar on their biceps. Bandoliers of bullets, holsters buckled on blue-jeaned hips. T-shirts with cult insignia from our extinguished HomeWorld. Flowers crowning a grinning skull. Greasy lips, a flapping tongue.
Did I summon a peacekeeper? Of course not. Plenty of Dox have fled the Bleaken Mountains and settled along the Catha seacoast, seeking shelter in our town of Coppermine. During the days when you and I lived in the mandated apartment on Via Ledge, we had a neighbor, a jolly widow who kept caged songbirds and collected porcelain figurines. I cried when a gang of Rippers slit her throat, shot the birds, smashed her figurines.
But you said, “I’d have slit her throat myself. She was a Dox.” And we had an ugly quarrel.
It’s not illegal for Dox militiamen to hang around Coppermine Square. Not illegal for them to flaunt their firearms. Everyone owns a handgun in Illyria. You and I keep our rifle and handgun hidden at our cottage. They’re much too dear to carry in town where a gang could stick you up and steal them.
Now Coppermine Square lies burning, shattered by the bomb. The sirens of catastrophe wail.
Saza darts among the rubble, her eyes anguished, her voice a rasp. “Oh, Maya, it’s Yuri.”
She needn’t say more. I’ve feared this moment every day of our lives. My heart leaps up and lodges in my throat.
That’s when I run to you, my love. Down the cobblestone streets to Doloros Infirmary. On Via Chagrin, I dodge feral dogs growling over fresh meat on the leg of a corpse. The corpse of a person—man or woman, I can’t tell—who was once a descendent of the Settlers on NewWorld.
You sprawl on a cot in the ward where they’ve taken you.
“It’s a concussion, ma’am,” the doctor informs me, “he’s brain-dead. The rest of him will be dead by nightfall. I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do.”
The doctor explains what’s irretrievably crushed inside you. Her words are a chaos I can’t comprehend. She and her assistants move on to the next mangled patient.
I sit beside the cot. I’m glad the bomb didn’t damage your face. I couldn’t bear to see your face torn apart.
They’ve taken you off life support, and I touch your golden hair threaded with silver. Touch your cheek, the white keloidal line of the scar from when you fought the Rippers in Torrent Province. I’m tempted to tug open your eyelids, to glimpse the startling blue of your eyes so unlike mine. But I don’t want to see the stare of the lifeless. I smooth my forefinger over your thin lips, so very unlike mine.
How we used to joke about the inevitability of this moment. Many an evening we sat before the fireplace in our cottage, guzzling deep from a bottle of vinjak.
“I’ll die first,” you’d say. “I trot out the handgun like a good Cath and go serve whenever the militia calls us up. I’m bullet-fodder.”
“You’re tough and strong,” I’d say. “And I’m older than you. Me, I’ll die first.”
“Don’t be absurd. You’ve got good genes. Didn’t your grandmother live to be a hundred-three?”
“She lived in peace and plenty. I’ve never had peace and plenty.”
“We’ve got peace and plenty now.”
“These days won’t last. And I’m much older than you. I’ll die first, and that’s that.”
“Who will cook me spicy beans stew?”
“You’ll find some woman. You always do.”
“My days are numbered. A Dox bomb will spill my brains. Or a Ripper bomb.”
“Who will reach me down the cider vinegar when I want to cook spicy beans stew?”
“You’ll find another tall man.”
“You’re my only tall man.”
Then you retired to your bedroom, I to mine.
I never loved you more than I did on those evenings.
Saza tiptoes into the ward, bringing me a bottle of pivo. She whispers sympathies, tiptoes out. She’s a good neighbor, but I can’t expect more. She’s cremating her tenth child tonight.
I down the bottle, wringing out memories of our days together. I doze.
Outside the window, a crow caws.
When I wake, you’re miraculously awake. You’re breathing, shouting, your blue eyes wide. Blood from the back of your skull spatters. The doctor and her assistants attach life support tubes, whisk you away.
Hope seizes me.
You’re alive, ass-kicking alive. Isn’t that just like you? “Never take no for an answer,” you always tell me.
I hurry to my vegetable kiosk, shake my broomstick at the damn crow. The bird spits out shredded onions and parsnips, wheels up and wings away, its caw fading in the roar of the bomb.
Our townfolk reassemble shards of earthenware jugs and set them on their shelves. Calk chinks in the bricks, polish the timbers. The feral dogs prowl off to the Bleaken Mountains. Saza hugs her baby daughter to her breast. The crows flap up, searching for easier prey.
I shake droplets off the leafy tops of carrots, tuck a pretty melon, green with pink stripes, in the wagon you built for me.
I wave to the vendors on Coppermine Square, cart fruit and vegetables to my garden. I attach tomatoes to their fuzzy stems, thrust carrots and parsnips in their rows of fertilized soil. Honey bees buzz, depositing pollen into the stamens of the flowers.
Extra produce I can for our lean winters. In our kitchen, I peel off wax seals from the mouths of jars, pour boiling water into my cauldron, reassemble pieces of peaches.
You and I, we argue about Illyria.
“So what if the Rippers invade the mountains, kill the Dox, steal their food?” I tell you. I take your cup of coffee, pour it into the pot. “What has that got to do with us?”
You’ve returned from the mountains, gaunt from the paltry rations, exhausted from the ten-day battle, filthy with sweat and blood. You give me that look. “It’s the right thing to do, Maya.”
“The right thing is for you to stay home. Go to your job at the windmill factory and help me in the garden.”
“Catha’s copper mines lie at the border. Our windmills, too, sending energy through the Bleaken Corridor. If the Rippers conquer the Dox, what do you think they’ll do next?”
“Gloat over their war spoils and buy fancy cars from Starica.”
“You are so naïve. They’ll threaten us. Threaten Catha’s peace and security. And our access to the Bleaken Corridor.”
“I see. Our access to the Bleaken Corridor, that I can understand. But you? Rushing off with the militia? You’re pushing the years, Yuri. I’m pretty sure I saw a silver hair in all that gold.”
You’re a handsome man, as I’ve always told you. This talk of aging offends your vanity. “They call up the militia, I go. Like I’m supposed to. Like I always have.”
“I think since Janabelle kicked you out of her house and you can’t stand being around me, you like marching off with the boys.”
“Have a good day, Maya,” you say, your blue eyes icy. You’re very offended I should mention your breakup with Janabelle after you left me for her. You crawl off to your bedroom, slam the door.
Have I taken you in? Have I kept your bedroom just as you left it? I should tell you to go to hell, but I don’t. This is our cottage. After all your women, you still belong to me.
I just want to cook spicy beans stew and live my life in peace. Live out my life with you, my love.
I will die first.
In Torrent Province, the Rippers unearth from a mass grave ten thousand male Caths—grandfather, father, son, grandson. They tamp out the flames of burning Cath villages, piece together the torn clothes of ten thousand violated women and girls.
I watch the Instrumentality, bear witness. The shattered skull of a child sucks in her brains, bone fragments slap together, silky hair thrusts into a pink scalp. Her screaming face. Her sweet smile.
You march off.
You march back.
The Cath militia calls you up to unleash hell. You pull on your black T-shirt with the red ban-the-bomb sign from our extinguished HomeWorld. Wrap your armband with the Crossbar around your biceps, strap on bandoliers of bullets, buckle a holster on your blue-jeaned hip. You keep your gear and weapons at our cottage, not at Janabelle’s house in Coast City.
I’m infuriated at how you use our cottage as your secret clothes closet. But my fears for you confronting the Rippers—who care nothing about life, their own or anyone else’s—overcome my anger.
“Don’t go,” I beg. “Haven’t you served enough? You’re in the prime of life, Yuri.”
“The last time our militia went to set things right in Torrent Province, we lost a thousand men. If the militia needs me, I must go.”
I’m desperate so I say desperate things. “What about Janabelle? What about your kids?”
You whirl on me, towering over me. “I thought we were not to talk about Janabelle. Or our kids. I’ve provided for them. They’re not your concern, Maya.”
“What about me?” I say. “Have you provided for me?”
“I taught you how to use the rifle. You’ve got our cottage, your garden, your kiosk on the square. You’ll be all right, Maya. You always are.”
“What if I’m not all right? What if the Dox march in while you fine militiamen march off doing your duty and slit my throat and burn down our cottage?”
But you’re off, your boot heels pounding on the gravel. Waving good-bye with a flip of your hand.
Hammerist workers topple the statue of Stann, the Velvet Fist. I wouldn’t miss the civic ceremony for anything. I stand in the crowd at Coppermine Square and watch, a confusion of feelings in my heart.
Descendants of the Settlers who claimed Hammer, a land northwest of the Catha seacoast, control a vital energy source powering Illyria. Acres of wind farms, the steel propellers whirling in fierce, cold storms. Once the winds were a bane to the Settlers. Now they’re a source of wealth and power for their descendants.
Times change.
The Hammerist Empire collapses in bankruptcy, slowing the gale force of cheap abundant power to a weak breeze. It turns out the price of energy was artificially fixed by the Velvet Fist. Currencies of Catha, Dox, and Ripp collapse. Shelves in the kiosks are bare.
Militias rise up in every province and prey upon their own people. I cried when militiamen ransacked the lovely, two-hundred-year-old Coppermine Public Library. When they finished ransacking, the militiamen burned the building to the ground.
My stomach rumbles with hunger. A mold ruined half the harvest of my garden. I sell what I can salvage, keeping only a few onions and carrots. I haven’t eaten meat or cheese in months.
Has any good come of the collapse of the Hammerist Empire and its grip on us? Yes, it has. A Central Committee no longer dictates where I, or any other Cath, must live. I produce my family deed and the interim city council allows me to move back into our cottage. After the unhappy days at the mandated apartment on Via Ledge, I’m thrilled to haul moving boxes, clean up the mess the assigned families made, arrange my furniture and my knickknacks just the way I’ve always liked.
The Hammerist workers, wearing armbands with the sign of the Hammer, carry off the statue of Stann in a truck. And then I see you in the crowd with Janabelle.
You see me, too. You say something to her, thread through the crowd to me.
“Let’s go home,” you have the nerve to say, taking my elbow. I should wrench my arm away, but I don’t. I let you guide me through the crowd. You stop in a saloon, buy a bottle of vinjak. We walk down the cobblestones to our cottage.
“Reach me down the cider vinegar?” I say.
You pluck the jar off the top shelf, sit at the kitchen table like always as I whip up spicy beans stew.
So. Is she the last one?” You’ve had many other women before Janabelle.
You shrug, take a swallow from the bottle. Isn’t that just like you. Buy me a bottle, then drink it yourself.
“You have kids with her?” I take the bottle from you, take my own swallow.
“You really want to know?”
Your sullen resentment and my fierce jealousy poison my little yellow kitchen.
But you’re you, Yuri. You never take no for an answer. You won’t allow my love to get in your way. You go to the half-bath off the kitchen, take from a drawer the oak-handled hairbrush. You stand behind me while I sit at the kitchen table, uncorking the bottle of vinjak, and brush my hair.
“So thick and dark,” you murmur, unknotting tangles. “Like sable. The color of sable.”
“Not a white-haired hag yet?”
“You’ll never be a hag. But I do see a few strands of white,” you tease me.
“I don’t think so.” I check in the mirror all the time.
“No, your hair is dark as ever,” you concede. Lying like you always do.
You take unfair advantage of my moment of pleasure.
“I don’t see our predicament ever ending,” you say.
“That’s fine, coming from you. You’re the one who’s slaughtered Dox and Rippers with your own hands.”
“I’m not happy about what I had to do. That’s my point. I’m the one who has a right to ask. Why do you plead for peace in the face of evil?”
“I plead for peace when peace is the right thing.”
“When someone intends to kill you, peace is not the right thing. You must defend yourself and your family. We’d be dead if people like you had their way.”
I shudder. You have no idea. But I only say, “I understand defending yourself against a predator.”
“Do you?”
“Sure. Last week, I saw a crow circling my garden. When I left for Coppermine Square, he pecked my sweet corn to bits. Today he was after my raspberries. I saved those berries from a blight. They’ll fetch me three months of income. So I got out the rifle and shot the bastard dead.”
“Good shot.”
“You taught me well.”
You’re silent, brushing my hair. “You don’t think your peace comes with a price?”
This isn’t a question. It’s your declaration of what you believe I believe, and I resent you for presuming.
But I don’t challenge you. I don’t start an argument. An argument will only lead to conflict. Illyria is cursed with enough conflict. I don’t want conflict with you. Never with you.
I say, “I know there’s a price. That’s why I protect what’s mine.”
You’re so tall, so virile. Your biceps, an astonishment. You work out in the bathroom, lifting barbells.
I discover white threads in my sable-brown hair, pluck them out with tweezers. I rub skin cream in the lines fanning out from my eyes. It must be very good skin cream because the lines fade. Still, I fret about things I cannot change.
You laugh. “Maya, you’re beautiful as ever.”
I believe you. I’m so proud when we walk arm-in-arm through Coppermine Square, and our townfolk say, “That’s Maya and Yuri.”
To learn the dark secret of Maya’s past, a secret she can never tell to Yuri, please join my Patreon page at Friends, readers, and fans, help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m also offering a critique of your writing sample per submission.
Visit me at for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!


Summary: From the extinguished HomeWorld, the Settlers traveled across the stars to NewWorld with hopes of starting over again. In the war-torn nation of Illyria, Maya just wants to grow vegetables and live in peace. But she has a dark secret she can never reveal, especially to her beloved Yuri.
Introduction: For my novella, “One Day in the Life of Alexa,” I studied the horrific 1990s wars in the Balkans, as well as the history leading up to those conflicts. I was struck by the adage, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” and the tragic effects on the lives of ordinary people.
The story’s title, “Illyria, My Love” was inspired by Hiroshima, Mon Amour, an hallucinogenic 1959 film directed by Alain Resnais that flips through (and mixes up) two characters’ pasts, presents, and futures. Interesting, though at times very slow-going.
Regarding print fiction, “Illyria, My Love” is in the vein of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and the classic story by Fritz Leiber, “The Man Who Never Grew Young”. Both of those stories are told from the viewpoint of a man.
I wanted a woman’s viewpoint, so this is one woman’s tragedy, told through the ironic lens of backwards-in-time.
Please join my Patreon page at Friends, readers, and fans, help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m also offering a critique of your writing sample per submission.
Visit me at for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!


This is an ebook adaptation of Lisa Mason’s novelette, “The Sixty-Third Anniversary of Hysteria,” published in Full Spectrum 5 (Bantam). A Postscript and a list of Research Sources follow.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Bast Book
Copyright 2012 by Lisa Mason.
All rights reserved.
Bast Books ebook edition published March 2012
Praise for Books by Lisa Mason
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Phillip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Summer of Love, A Time Travel
A San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year
A Philip K. Dick Award Finalist
“Remarkable. . . .a whole array of beautifully portrayed characters along the spectrum from outright heroism to villainy. . . .not what you expected of a book with flowers in its hair. . . the intellect on display within these psychedelically packaged pages is clear-sighted, witty, and wise.”
—Locus Magazine
“A fine novel packed with vivid detail, colorful characters, and genuine insight.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Captures the moment perfectly and offers a tantalizing glimpse of its wonderful and terrible consequences.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliantly crafted. . . .An engrossing tale spun round a very clever concept.”
—Katharine Kerr, author of Days of Air and Darkness
“Just imagine The Terminator in love beads, set in the Haight-Ashbury ‘hood of 1967.”
—Entertainment Weekly
“Mason has an astonishing gift. Her characters almost walk off the page. And the story is as significant as anyone could wish. This book will surely be on the prize ballots.”
“A priority purchase.”
—Library Journal
The Gilded Age, A Time Travel
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Public Library Recommended Book
“A winning mixture of intelligence and passion.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify Mason’s position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Rollicking. . .Dazzling. . .Mason’s characters are just as endearing as her world.”
—Locus Magazine
“Graceful prose. . . A complex and satisfying plot.”
—Library Journal
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition (A Lily Modjeska Mystery)
Passionate Historical Romantic Suspense
5 Stars
“I really enjoyed the story and would love to read a sequel! I enjoy living in the 21st century, but this book made me want to visit the Victorian era. The characters were brought to life, a delight to read about. The tasteful sex scenes were very racy….Good Job!”
—Reader Review
The Garden of Abracadabra
“So refreshing! This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
—Goodreads Reader
“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy….I want to read more!”
—Reader Review
“I love the writing style and am hungry for more!”
—Goodreads Reader
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria
6 May 1941.
We’ve arrived at last after months in Casablanca, which I once remembered fondly & now loathe. Sold all my good white linen bed sheets for Moslem shrouds to raise money for our sea passage. The Faithful must meet their Maker wrapt in the colour of purity, but I would’ve slept on straw, on mud, on a bed of nails to leave Africa.
Every day we were in danger. Everyone knows B.B. supported the Loyalists in Spain & wrote editorials for La Revolution Surrealiste & corresponded with Trotsky, for godssake. Fascists in every bar & café. Nazis, too, now that Rommel has taken over the Occupation & his officers carouse their days away. The Soviets will make mincemeat of you within the year, B.B. told anyone who would listen. Didn’t care a fig who listened in. Every night I feared the knock on our door, which thankfully never came.
As for our sea passage, I have little to record. I was sick, B.B. was sick. Everyone sick & absolutely grey with fear. We sailed on a Union Oil tanker, The Montebello. A favorite sport of Nazi U-boats, torpedoing a merchant ship with refugees aboard. No more than a rifle or two to defend us, should we be attacked. Every day the radio told of another sinking–in the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, & all hands lost. Nazi U-boats take no prisoners, save no survivors bobbing amongst the waves. I began to wonder what it must be like to drown. Your hair streaming up into sunlit waters, your feet plunging into blackness below. The fearsome struggle to breathe–would it be swift or slow? Would you notice fish? When would they start nibbling at the lobes of your ears?
I had to set this journal aside. Force myself to stop conjuring up horrors.
When we hobbled ashore at Tampico, I fell on my knees & kissed the beach. I mean literally. B.B. laughing & lurching about on his sea legs. I can still taste the sand on my lips. Filthy, but marvelous. The marvelous taste of our deliverance.
Nothing but the shirts on our backs & two little bags between us. We haven’t got a penny.
It’s completely true what Breton says of our destination.
Mexico is the Surrealist place par excellence. The land blazes with a savage golden light. A tiger light. The jungle spreads its tendrils to the very edge of town & the leaves of certain palms possess a clarified green the like of which I’ve never seen in Britain nor in Europe, save perhaps Tuscany. Blossoms have their wanton way in every window box, on every street corner, through every crevice in the ancient stone walls. Brick & mortar are no match for the lusty thrust of Life. I love the lascivious pinks, the regal purples. I spied a scarlet that actually throbbed, as if the colour of blood was pulsing from a newly opened wound. The natives wear their modernity lightly. As if civilization is but a garment to be donned or disposed of at one’s will.
I should like to feel that unencumbered of my past.
Thanks to the small refugee stipend paid to us by the Mexican government, we have found an apartment on Gabino Barreda, near the Monument to the Revolution (B.B. likes that, a poetic touch). Three horrid little rooms in a decaying stucco tenement. Plaster crumbling off the walls, scorpions in the kitchen. Other vermin, too, I fear. Mother would faint dead away at the sight of the pit in the floor that passes for our indoor plumbing. There is an alcove off the bedroom, though, which has light nearly all day & a terrace overlooking the street, which is delightfully picturesque. B.B. says I may take it for my art studio. The landlady (upon whom B.B. has worked his usual masculine charms) came by with two white, blue-eyed kittens, brushstrokes of fawn on nose & paw. She says they are Sealpoint Siamese such as I have not seen since Mother’s house in London.
Enchanting & I wept, realising how much I’ve left behind. How much the war has taken from us. The simple pleasure of kittens.
How can I not be happy?
Mexico City
“To the late Doctor Sigmund Freud,” says Gunther, raising his shot glass in a toast.
“To the great and monstrous Id,” says Enrique.
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” says Wolfie.
“Hear, hear,” adds B.B., a bit anemically. Poor man, he is not well.
Cheers ring out all round. Nora raises her glass as a courtesy, too weary to cheer. Tequila spills over her fingers, stinging the cut on her thumb she’d got unpacking B.B.’s papers. He needed everything ready by morning so he could start work on his new play. While he’d slept like the dead, she had labored long into the night. Their two bags no longer seeming so little or so sparse of belongings.
Nora knows these three merry fellows from Paris during her café days. Gunther and Wolfie are a pair of Hungarians, Enrique a Greek. Now they are all displaced Surrealists. A new nationality of their own. The tropical climate suits them, Nora is pleased to see. Gunther has grown positively stout on rice and beans, Wolfie sports an alarming mustache, and Enrique, well. Enrique is ever Enrique, a sly smile wrapped around a cigarette. Now he wears a jaunty straw hat and a white linen shirt, having retired his black Basque beret to a drawer along with his black wool scarf.
Exiles in Mexico City they all are, this ragged gang of painters, poets, and pundits. They’ve fled from everyplace a Nazi boot has kicked in a door or threatened to. Hungarians and Swedes, Austrians and Russians, British and Spanish and French. The Mexicans and Peruvians–Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Cesar Moro–serve as centers of gravity for these wayward comets. If not for the war, half these visionaries and rabble-rousers would scarcely be on speaking terms with the other half. But the war, now safely far behind them on the Continent, has taught strange and marvelous tricks to a pack of aging mongrels.
Gunther flings tequila into his throat, chases away the sting with a gulp of black beer. B.B., always one to follow suit around his comrades, flings a shot and gulps, as well, though flamboyant gestures do not become him. Never a robust man, B.B. has weathered the war rather badly. He has been leached and winnowed into something peevish and frail, his finely made face worn-out with worry. His hair has ebbed to the top of his skull, exposing the enigmatic dome of his forehead. Ever the intellectual, B.B. has assumed such an intense introspective air that people pause around him, even when he’s liquored up, and await an oracle.
“To Freud? How passé.” A woman’s voice, ironic, incisive, cuts through the male bombast and swoops into Nora’s eager ear. “Still stuck on nasty old Sigmund, what a pity.”
Valencia sweeps into the parlour of her house, smiling in her ironic way. She plucks the shot glass from Nora’s hand, offers a tumbler rimmed in salt. “Try this instead, cherie. Lime and tonic, with crushed ice. A much better way to sample tequila for the first time. We are not barbarians like Gunther and your poor old B.B.”
Nora, a little nervous, reacquaints herself with another famous face from the Paris days. Valencia, always towering, has transformed herself here into an Amazon queen, voluptuous and formidable. She wears her fiery chestnut hair in an unkempt mane that tumbles around her face and down her shoulders. Her bold Spanish features are much as Nora recalls. The huge dark eyes, the left one slightly askew. The rapier snout of a conquistador. Bee-stung lips of a shady lady. Altogether a splendid face, if not exactly pretty.
“Valencia, hello again,” Nora says, taking the tumbler. “Thanks ever so. You look marvelous.”
“You, too, cherie. Though a little frazzled around the edges, eh? Still, ever our English beauty. Drink up.”
Nora plucks at her threadbare blouse, abashed. You never could tell if Valencia was taking aim or only skewering your own self-doubts. If Valencia is an Amazon, Nora is a fairy-queen. Queen of the gnats. So petite and unassuming, few ever notice her, despite her pretty face and lustrous sable curls. The war has worn her down, too. She is much too thin, much too pale. Bad food, days brooding belowdecks, and despair have bleached all the colour from her English cheeks. Fleeing Fascism is fashionable only in theory. This she has learned the hard way.
Nora slides the tart taste of lime down her throat. Thirsty, so very thirsty. For refreshment. For friendship. Mexico City sits at the top of the world. They say the air is always bone-dry.
They say the Kahlo-Rivera circle is an arid place, too, harboring much public animosity toward correspondents of Trotsky like B.B. Not that Nora ever wrote to the famous revolutionary herself. She’s just an artist. But she shall surely be painted by the same brush by Frida and Diego.
Suddenly B.B. is at her side, gripping her elbow. Solicitous, fatherly, though of course they are lovers, he takes her tumbler. “I don’t think she should,” he says to Valencia.
Who regards his gesture with narrowed, glinting eyes. Tigress eyes.
“You are having a drop yourself, B.B.,” Valencia observes.
“Yes, but I am ever the drunkard. Whereas my little Nora hasn’t touched drink in ages, not the whole time we were exiled in Casablanca.” He sets her tumbler on a side table. And that’s that, in B.B.’s scheme of things. “Be so good as to tell me what is wrong with Freud, Madam Valencia?”
“Hah! Tell me what is right about Freud.”
She sweeps Nora under her arm, reclaiming the tumbler as she goes and restoring it to Nora’s hand. “You must come and see my art studio, cherie.
Nora shrugs and rolls her eyes at B.B., who is scowling. What can she do, swept away by a force of nature?
Valencia and her husband Renato own a house on Via del Rosa Moreno, five blocks west of Nora and B.B.’s apartment. No horrid little rooms or crumbling plaster for Valencia. Renato has money. The place is a palace. Whitewashed ceilings, Moroccan arches, great expanses of floor paved in terra cotta tile. There is an interior garden with a fountain. Valencia’s art studio, which opens onto the garden, has an adobe fireplace and native grotesqueries displayed on the walls. There is an Olinala jaguar mask with genuine fangs. A Michoacán devil mask, post-Cortez, bearing a striking resemblance to a Satan of Catholic inspiration. A Tlacozotitlan bat mask, a jungle nightmare held aloft by carved wood wings.
Nora is dazzled. But then Valencia has always dazzled everyone. They met among the clique surrounding Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy. Valencia slept with the great men, one after another. Breton himself had noticed her since she, sloe-eyed and slender then, was the sort of femme-enfant he craved like candy. Plus, she possessed unbeatable cachet: Valencia was a budding Surrealist artist. She painted interior landscapes. The shadows of the subconscious mind whirled and writhed across her haunting canvases.
Nora had been awed by Valencia then, too, and not a little envious. She had slept with too many of the less-than-great men, with the too-beautiful poet who wound up preferring gin and boys, and she was still painting competent Italian countrysides. Olive trees and Etruscan ruins, what rot. Nora hadn’t yet discovered how to paint past her eye. How to explore the depths of pure imagination.
Now Valencia is the great woman with whom lesser men are privileged to dine in Mexico City. For the great men like Breton and Tanguy have had the means and connections to escape the ravages of Europe in New York City. In the years since Paris, Valencia has become well-known in Surrealist circles, if not to the larger public. Peggy Guggenheim shows her paintings at Guggenheim Jeune Gallery. Valencia has collectors. Not many, but enthusiastic. And rich.
Among the canvases stacked in the studio, Nora spies a painting of a sphinx. She stoops for a closer look. Not the Egyptian monument nor the ripe she-beasts of Louis XIV statuary, but a vixenish creature with tabby-cat’s paws and a child’s face. The creature crouches in a decaying mansion, toying with a human jawbone, broken eggshells, a tidbit of bloody meat.
Something jars Nora, gazing at this strange image. Something takes her back to Mother’s house, the great rooms deserted. Everyone had gone to church, and a cousin, a rawboned boy fifteen years to her ten, stood towering over her. There were eggs. Eggs she’d dropped on the floor beneath her knees, and a whitish scum smeared across the tiles. A whitish scum lingering in her mouth.
No, that didn’t happen. You were dreaming, darling, Mother said when she stammered out her story. Cousin came with us to church. Cook must have dropped the eggs.
“Valencia, this is smashing,” she says, shaken. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Is this a new direction for you?”
Valencia starts to answer, then presses her finger to her lips, for now the men are strolling into the art studio, laughing and bickering. Tequila fumes rise off them, an alcoholic miasma. Nora bites back her words, cut off from further conversation. Well, but of course, it’s a party. B.B. hooks his elbow around her neck, as he often does, dangling his forearm across her collarbone. His hand hanging over her heart.
“So, Valencia, my dear, have you seen much of Frida and Diego lately?” Gunther says.
“No, not much at all. Watch your step, gentlemen, that canvas took me four months of heart-wrenching work. Rivera is in poor health, you know. Frida attends to his every need, as if he were still a little boy in his nappies.”
The men trade uneasy glances. Some of them revere Rivera, some despise him, but all consider the internationally famous, famously charming, and charismatic artist to be some kind of deity visiting this poor mundane world at his leisure. Valencia’s gibe makes them fidget, Nora observes, even if they suspect it’s true. Yet who can object? Valencia knows Kahlo and Rivera better than any of them. She is–what is the American expression?–she is in the know.
“Come now, ma belle, Valencia,” says B.B. Ah, Nora thinks, here it comes. “You have not set out for us your objections to Doctor Freud. The greatest analyst of the human mind in our times.”
“Oh, my, haven’t I?” A wink for Nora. And a little twisting motion with her fingers beside her lip, as if she were a Spanish gentleman adjusting his mustache. Very disconcerting to the gentlemen present.
“You have not,” B.B. asserts, assuming his lordly professorial air. Though he’s weaving on his feet.
“Well, to start, Freud hated women,” Valencia says, laughing as though this is quite a joke.
“Oh, that is not true, Valencia,” Gunther says. “The great doctor spent hours and hours with his madwomen.”
“Didn’t he, though,” says Enrique with his sly smile.
“You are all absurd,” B.B. says in such a commanding, condescending tone that he silences everyone. “It is Freud, madam, who first explicated the existence and causes of l’amour fou attitudes passionelles. The supreme means of ecstatic expression at which you women are so adept.” At that, he peers at the painting of the sphinx.
“Ah, Hysteria,” Valencia says. “The divine madness of women.”
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” Wolfie says, less clearly, and raises another toast of tequila. He cradles the bottle in the crook of his arm.
“Now, Wolfie,” Valencia begins. Taking aim, indeed. “Do you wish to live forever in the shadow of Breton? As for me, I’m still annoyed by the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria. An event rather in questionable taste, even for Surrealists, don’t you think? How like Breton, publishing photographs of those poor lunatics at Salpetriere Hospital. As an artistic statement! All of them women, of course, in psychotic fugue and various stages of undress. You’d rather have your women mad than freethinking, eh, B.B.?”
Nora waits, breathless, for her lover’s answer.
“I agree, the quality of the photographs was rather poor,” he replies in a mild tone. “But Breton’s lack of talent as a publisher is not the point. Come now, admit it, Valencia. Sigmund Freud was the first man in history to truly understand women.”
“And what did Freud understand, pray tell?”
“Why, that women are the link to the subconscious mind.”
“Whose subconscious mind?” Valencia says. She clarifies, “The subconscious mind of whom?”
“Don’t be obtuse, Valencia,” B.B. says. “Freud exalts Woman. She is the link to the Id of the Artist. To the darkness. To the lurking dirtiness. She disturbs the Poet, and She compels him. She penetrates his every inhibition. She unleashes his forbidden desires, oh yes. She is the key, the trigger, the perfumed bomb. She is that onto which his passions may be projected. She is his fantasy, and his fantasy fulfilled.”
“A blank slate, is that what you mean, B.B.? An empty vessel with no thoughts or talents of her own?”
“She is my Muse,” B.B. says. He squeezes Nora’s neck so tightly she winces in pain.
“Dear old B.B. So dependent on women, after all.” Her glinting eyes turn to Nora. “And what about you, cherie? Is he your key, your trigger? How does he compel you when you paint your vision?”
Nora blushes. She has no answer.
“As for me,” Valencia declares, “I am my Muse.”
22 June 1941.
V. has changed my life. We see each other nearly every day. Teacher, soul-sister, friend. Muse, indeed, for she challenges me to look beyond the surface of the world. To look deep within myself & my imagination. To view our Art as a Calling & a Quest, not merely decoration for the rich.
Gossipmonger, too. V. is filled with talk about things going on everywhere. A spider tugging at each strand of her web for juicy morsels. How I adore it! She claims Kahlo has such a mustache on her lip from pleasing Rivera too much. You know what I mean. Certain prostitutes on the Rue de G develop the same problem, she says, with a twist of her imaginary mustache. I don’t know if this could possibly be true, but it makes for an awfully nasty rumor. Kahlo is a tragic figure, of course, with her grievous injury & her beautiful tortured paintings & having to cater to Rivera with his temper & his mistresses. Yet as much as I do truly pity her, I find her theatrical & intimidating & have not sought out her company, nor she mine. In any case, B.B. disapproves of her & Diego, but that’s politics.
V. studies a Swiss psychoanalyst, one Carl Jung. Once Freud’s disciple, Jung was cast out of his circle over theoretical/political dissension. V. adores Jung almost as much as she despises Freud. Jung is on to something when he talks about the subconscious, V. says. Rather than the repository of eroticism & primitivism (as Freud would have it), the subconscious (for Jung) is the repository of occult wisdom & magical powers. “Magical powers” being a metaphor for one’s inner strengths & talents. Jung does not actually believe magical powers exist, does he?
Like Freud, Jung believes the subconscious is essentially female. Intuition feminine, too. If this is so, then Woman is not only erotic, but also occult.
V. is deeply moved by these ideas. I’m much taken, too, but not quite sure what to believe. (I read V.’s books in her art studio. Don’t dare bring them home, should B.B. find them & throw them in the trash.)
Yesterday at the market V. & I found a plant with strange, egg-like fruit. We didn’t know what it was, had never seen such a thing before. V. told me to run & fetch my brushes & bring them to her studio, which I did, posthaste. We placed the plant in her garden & arranged my brushes around it. V. claimed the light of the full moon would fall upon everything & the Alchemical Egg would bless my brushes with creative power. Together we composed & then recited an incantation & danced like dervishes & drank a liter of red wine, all of which I found quite amusing. V. assured me this is not frivolous, this is inspiration. This is Magic. Lord, I will try anything to overcome this block of mine.
On my way home I found a tiny bird’s nest which had fallen to the pavement. A sticky little ball of twigs & spider silk & tucked inside, an egg no larger than a gumdrop. I picked the nest up & placed it in the crotch of a lemon tree next to the sidewalk. The very moment I did this, mother hummingbird flitted up & hovered, as if in thanks, blinking at me with her tiny beady bird eyes. I prayed: Oh Alchemical Egg, give birth to Me.
Silly, I know, but there you are & I was so happy, thinking this is a very good omen.
Started pencil sketches for a new painting tonight. My first work in Mexico City: a woman curled up inside of an egg.
Mexico City
Nora is exhausted by the time she arrives home from the advertising agency. The downtown bus was running late, she’s been running a fever for a week, there is nothing decent in the cupboard for dinner, and, to top it off, B.B. is in a foul mood again.
“Where have you been?” he snaps as she drags in the door.
“At work, of course,” she snaps back.
“At Valencia’s again,” he says. On principle, he cannot object to her friendship with the great Surrealist Artist, but he chafes at her devotion to her friend just the same.
“At work,” she repeats. “And at Valencia’s,” softening her tone, for what is the use of quarreling with B.B.? “I wanted to visit the cats.”
Nora could not afford to keep the Siamese kittens, who have transformed themselves into sleek little chocolate-cheeked panthers. Valencia, who is such a cat lover that friends have nicknamed her Felina, gladly them took in, but it’s discouraging. Nora cannot afford to keep cats. Nora cannot afford much more than their rent, rice, and beans. She cannot afford new shoes. She lines the insides of her once-fine Italian leather pumps with newspaper. She cannot afford a new blouse. She washes perspiration stains out of the weary old cotton with lye soap and a scrub brush. The advertising agency is pleased with her projects, simple but energetic pen-and-ink drawings extolling the virtues of aspirin and hair tonic, but they only pay for piecework, which amounts to little.
B.B., on the other hand, does not work in any gainful way. After losing his family’s house and land in Vienna to the Nazis, he has been paralyzed with grief though–Nora reminds herself–he never worked in any gainful way before then, either. He is unable to face the daily stringency of reporting to an office. He feels he does not speak Spanish well enough to translate or write for a local newspaper.
In any case, he’s started the new play. How can I write for a newspaper, he wants to know, if I’m to write the new play? Sometimes Nora thinks B.B. would be content to live in the streets and beg for food, all for the sake of the new play. Still, the play is his salvation. Everything he lives for. If not for the play, he tells her, I would have hanged myself a year ago.
This frightens her, this talk of hanging himself. Nora has loved B.B. for years. She reveres him. He was a great man, a poet and a playwright respected in Paris, in all of Europe, by Breton himself, an entire decade before she met him. She, his young lover, cannot possibly allow B.B. to live in the streets and beg for food. Let alone hang himself.
Still, there is the troublesome fact that he has written nothing significant in the year after their exile and flight. Oh, a page or two since the day she unpacked his papers upon arriving in Mexico City. She must be patient, she tells herself. He’s returning to his work, thanks to her. You‘re all I have left in the world, he tells her. You are my Muse.
“Did you get cigarettes? Tequila?” he growls now. Tobacco and booze fuel him. He must have cigarettes and tequila if he is to write the new play.
“I forgot we were out.”
Nora has hidden cigarettes in her little art studio for herself, for the hard-won moments when she can be there, painting. Her secret stash, which she refuses to share. Having to work has considerably slowed progress on her new painting. Yet Nora goes to the advertising agency and takes in sewing when she can because she would not be content to live in the streets and beg for food. She must at least have rice and beans. At the least the apartment on Gabino Barreda. She can do without new shoes and new blouses, but she must have paint. She must have canvases.
“Well, give me some money,” he says, “and I’ll go fetch everything.”
She gives him the last of her money for the week, and he goes out in search of cigarettes and tequila. She washes her hands and her face in the washbasin in the corner. Still mopping her neck with a towel, she drifts to his desk.
His work is put away, as usual, or covered up with a sheet of blank paper. He has not felt ready to show her the play, he says, and she respects that, the fragility of a new creation. She twinges with guilt at violating his orders not to disturb his things, but she’s not disturbing anything, she’s merely peeking. She picks up his ashtray, which needs emptying, anyway, and observes he has left a sheet of paper in his typewriter. Out of carelessness, his hangover, or deliberately, she cannot be sure. There, on the half-typed page she reads:
I beg you, Master! Please, not again, I cannot bear it!
(chaining her left ankle to the bedpost)
Yes, again, my little love. One day you will beg me for it.
Nora goes to the kitchen, puts rice on to boil. She heats oil in the skillet and fries the last of the curling tortillas. Hot grease spatters her hands. She feels nothing. Nothing but the anger in her heart. When B.B. strolls in with his cigarettes and tequila, she bangs the skillet down and stomps out to the living room.
“So. The new play,” she says, tapping her toe, crossing her arms, tucking her grease-spattered hands into her armpits. “You are rewriting Marquis de Sade? A new Sade play?”
“I told you to stay away from my desk,” he says mildly.
Ah. Deliberately, then.
“What are you thinking, B.B.? Where is the audience for a new Sade play? Who gives a damn about Sade when Hitler has chained up all of Europe? When he lusts for Russia, for Africa? For the whole world?”
The radio and the newspapers are filled with the news. Hitler’s troops invade Russia! The Wehrmacht deploys two hundred divisions! Aimed at Leningrad, at Moscow, at the Ukraine. The Soviet army stumbles in chaos. Bombs decimate hundreds of Soviet aircraft on the ground. The planes hadn’t even had time to take off. The Stalin Line lies in ruins, Stalin himself is in a stupor.
“On the contrary, the times are exactly right for Sade,” he says, pouring out a shot. His hands shake and he spills tequila on the table. He laps the liquor up like a dog. “Hitler violates in the realm of politics and suppresses the personal.”
“Well! That is hardly a Surrealist revolutionary statement, B.B. That is bloody monstrous.”
“Monstrous! Yes! Exactly right, my little Nora! My play shall prove that violation in the realm of the personal will liberate our politics. When the common man sets out to explore the extremes of his fantasies, his exploration causes his society to become a more liberated and tolerant place.”
“And why, pray, is that?”
“Because the common man need not sublimate his desires and act out those sublimations and suppressions against his fellow citizen, his coworker, and his comrade.”
Nora does not know how to refute this theory.
B.B. grins at her silence. “Marquis de Sade was a great sexual revolutionary, fully conversant with his subconscious mind. A man who penetrated his secret obsessions without the benefit of Freudian psychoanalysis. Breton greatly admires Sade, you know. He says the man was a Surrealist, a pre-Surrealist. I cannot wait to show him my manuscript!”
“Sade and Freud and Breton,” she says. “Such cozy bedfellows. Comrades in despising and degrading women.”
“Oh, I see,” B.B. says coldly.
“You see what?”
“Madam Valencia’s influence has begun to confuse you. Sade, of all men, believed in the liberation of Woman. He believed Woman should be freed of her maternity, of her domesticity. Is that what you really want, Nora? Babies and housework?”
“I don’t know,” she whispers. This is only too true. She fled the bourgeois life long ago, searching for something more.
“No, you don’t, nor should you. Because you are an Artist, my little Nora. Do you really serve me so much? Do I demand a brilliant dinner? A spotless household? Heirs bouncing on my knee? No. I free you, Nora. I give you the key to your freedom so you may pursue your Art.”
The anger in her heart flares hotter. “Dear me, I didn’t realize you held the key to my prison.”
“Of course I do. Men always hold the key. Sade understood this.”
“Sade,” she says, “was a madman.”
“His prose style is exquisite,” B.B. says mildly.
After their rustic dinner, B.B. insists on making love. Nora resists at first, then gulps lime-and-tequila, and lies down on their bed. She does not fear B.B. She may be petite, but she’s stronger than him in many ways and much younger. He has never physically harmed her. She is certain he would never try. Yet she wants to know–how has he changed, if Sade is on his mind? What liberation will he bring her, if the liberation of Woman is the object of his creative inquiry?
But he is tender and respectful, as always, and she is both relieved and inexplicably disappointed. B.B. does not live his Art. His Art does not authenticate his life, his relationship with her, or his reckoning with the world. His Art is no Calling. It’s an entertainment. An entertainment no one will be entertained by. Especially her.
As he strives for his climax, she runs her fingertips down the slope of his back. The little knobs of his spine are so delicate. For a moment she believes she could crush them, like eggshells, with her thumbs.
To read the rest of this fascinating story, discover what momentous event Nora dreams of, discover her disastrous relationship with B.B., and read the Postscript about the real artists the story is based on and the sources I consulted, friends, readers, and fans, please join my Patreon page at and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m even offering a critique of your writing sample per each submission.
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In 1996, the (now-late) editor, writer, and my dear friend, Janet Berliner had a hot streak. She wrangled excellent deals for three anthologies with Big Publishers, for which she commissioned me to contribute three stories, including this one for the anthology, David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible.
Yes, that David Copperfield, the handsome stage magician who appeared frequently on television in the 1990s and has a long-running show in Las Vegas (still, I think). From the San Francisco Bay Area where I met her, Jan had moved to Las Vegas, crossed paths with David, and convinced him (she could be very convincing) to put his name on the anthology. He contributed a story, as well.
The gorgeous hardcover anthology was published by HarperPrism (a division of HarperCollins) in 1996, then also in a mass paperback edition, and in several foreign countries.
Jan’s proposal could not have come at a better time. I’d recently finished The Gilded Age, a time travel which takes place in 1895 and in 2395, as well as Celestial Girl, A Lily Modjeska Mystery, a four mini-book series and a passionate historical mystery which takes place exclusively in 1895. I was conversant in that time period in San Francisco and I was fluent in my Victorian voice, which is a bit different from my modern voice(s).
The project was also ably suited to my resources at hand.
It turns out that Tom Robinson, the abstract symbolist artist and studio jeweler (and my husband), was fascinated by stage magic as a boy growing up in Los Angeles. He collected stage magic magazines and books, acquired magic tricks from a local curio shop, and invented a few tricks himself.
He and a friend were wandering through their neighborhood in the Los Angeles hills when they came upon a fence surrounding a warehouse. In the backyard were placards and instruments and strange devices. Tom recognized them at once. “Those are stage magic tricks!” He hopped over the fence and met John Guaghan, the premier stage magic illusion-builder in the world, purveyor to Blackstone and probably to the young David Copperfield. Tom worked for Guaghan while he was still a teenager in high school, building and decorating stage magic illusions.
he opening quotation of “Every Mystery Unexplained” (and the title) is from one of Tom’s magic books and the ebook cover of “The Great Socar”, a stage magician from India, is a charming illustration from one of Tom’s carefully preserved magazines.
My story, “Every Mystery Unexplained”, is the only stage magic story in Tales of the Impossible. I expected other authors to turn in stage magic stories, but they didn’t. Mine is the only one!
Here’s what one critic had to say:
“This is the type of story I was hoping for from these anthologies: a blend of fiction and magic history . . .  Mason knows her magic history (the title is from a Harry Kellar quote) and she knows San Francisco. My favorite story of the year!”
-Katherine Nabity, The Writerly Reader
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This story was commissioned by Katharine Kerr for her anthology, The Shimmering Door: Sorcerers and Shamans, Witches and Warlocks, Enchanters and Spell-Casters, Magicians and Mages, and published by HarperPrism in 1996. The anthology includes so many wonderful writers of fantasy, I can’t type all the names. I’m pleased and honored to be among them.
The Hanged Man
Lisa Mason
There is no such thing as magic in telespace. Telespace is the aggregated correlation of five billion minds worldwide, uploaded into a computer-generated virtual reality. In a word, technology. And technology is scientific. Provable. Repeatable. Logical.
Whereas, magic. Well, magic is superstition. The belief that supernatural forces exist. That you can contact them, these supernatural forces. Manipulate them. Command them. But that’s an illusion, all right? You cannot depend on magic.
So Snap was outraged when a Hanged Man popped out of nowhere in the industrial telespace he was jacked into. “Damn telespace! Crashing again?” He’d been wrestling with a recalcitrant code and muttering to himself. He would never finish the TeleSystems infrastructure proposal if telespace crashed again.
Sometimes you cannot depend on technology, either.
A gruesome sight he was, too. Snap had never seen such a thing. Not some purple-faced, black-tongued, bug-eyed corpse throttled at the neck and dangling as hanged men do. Snap could have dealt with that. He would have thought Chickeeta was pecking at the resolution switch again. Was it Halloween? Snap had jacked in for three days straight, burning hypertime on the infrastructure proposal. For a moment, he couldn’t remember what month this was. What day. Dawn or dusk.
No, the Hanged Man dangled from his foot, his long, golden hair streaming down. A noose bound his right ankle. His left leg was crossed behind his right knee. His arms were trussed behind his back. He wore scarlet leggings, an azure jacket. And the Hanged Man was alive. He gazed at Snap with lucid, sorrowful eyes. His expression of silent agony was terrifying.
Then ping! he was gone.
Fear prickled through Snap’s telelink. He felt nauseated and dizzy, like the time some mooner had bumped the back of his motortrike in the gridlock and nearly killed him. Black streaks oozed in his perimeters. He dropped the code, which landed on the floor of the industrial telespace with a resounding plop and lay there, gelatinous as a jellyfish out of water.
“So help me,” Snap muttered, an expression he’d picked up from Chickeeta. “Whip you into shape later,” he promised the limp code.
Snap talked to himself a lot these days. He’d been ungainfully employed as a freelance telelinker ever since he’d been downsized out of a steady job with a utilities company two years ago. Except for a rented friend who’d been hired for three days because Snap couldn’t afford a longer term, he lived alone with Chickeeta. He saved the three days’ work on the TeleSystems infrastructure proposal to his backup drive, praying that the drive had enough space.
Praying. Now there’s some magic for you.
He jacked out of telespace.
And found himself strapped into the workstation tucked in his shabby studio apartment a story above the gravity dancing club deep in the wilds of the nightclub district. What the gravity dancers lacked in technical skill, they more than made up for in charm. Snap himself never patronized the club, but he often saw the dancers crowded around the front door, sneaking a smoke of this or that. Flashing gap-toothed grins, they lingered there in their fourth-hand danceskins and retreaded athletic shoes.
Snap’s studio apartment was not the kind of place to show your grandmother, but he liked it fine. Plus the price was right for a freelance telelinker. Snap unclipped the straps, cut the electro-neural. Feeling like three loads of dirty laundry, he dragged himself out of the workstation. Swigged a can of tweaked Coke. Threw open the window shade.
The damp chill and glimmer behind the eastern hills told him maybe four-thirty, maybe five a.m. Chickeeta huddled by the wallboard heater, eking out a bit of warmth, and glanced at him with glossy eyespots that always seemed too wise. Or wise-ass.
“Hey, idiot, where’ve you been?” Chickeeta said, ruffling its plumes. “I want to live, I want to dance, I want to cha-cha-cha.” Chickeeta let loose a tremendous shriek, then muttered, “So help me, ol’ salty boy.”
Snap grinned. He’d acquired the microbot from one of the sailors who frequented his lovely neighborhood. The sailor had mooned out in back of the club next to the door that led up to Snap’s studio. Someone had relieved the sailor of just about everything but the shirt on his back and the microbot.
Snap let the sailor sleep it off upstairs, gave him a pair of jeans and a ten-credit disk. For that small favor, the sailor gave Snap the microbot. A tiny, graceful entity with a bright copper head, anodized emerald aluminum plumes, and a silver rotary propeller extruding from its slender spine.
The exchange with the sailor turned out to be a good deal. Snap had the microbot appraised and discovered it could fetch up to five thousand credits through classy first-hand markets. Wow! But when a potential buyer responded to his telespace posting, Snap had to admit he didn’t want to sell, after all.
He’d grown attached to Chickeeta. The microbot was a pretty little thing. Smart. Sassy. Always nagging him. And at least Snap could complain to someone—something—other than himself.
Snap finished the tweaked Coke, which lessened the pounding in his head, sweetened the sourness in his stomach. A decent deal. He shuffled to the fridge. A small glacier calved out of the freezer. Down below, the fridge held the withered wrapper from a toner cartridge and half an organic apple that had seen better days.
Snap shredded the wrapper for Chickeeta. Sliced the apple for himself. Boiled tap water, mixed up instant coffee. Which could have been dishwater except it was black.
“You look like hell, amigo,” Chickeeta said, seizing wrapper shreds in its beak. The microbot processed metals and motor oil, automatically repairing its internal hardware.
“Tell me about it,” Snap muttered. “So help me.”
“Heh, heh, heh, so help me,” Chickeeta said. “Yeeeek!
An anomaly, that’s what the Hanged Man was. Snap sighed and sipped coffee. The brew tasted like freeway grit, but the caffeine wended its way to his exhausted brain. An anomaly. He’d heard of them, of course. Who hadn’t? The Hanged Man’s eyes were glossed with some awesome emotion, a strange intelligence that Snap couldn’t place at all. He shivered. Anomalies were random manifestations in telespace, erratic bits of electro-neural energy. Anomalies could never be completely deleted, not even with all those terabytes of artificial intelligence.
Yes, but telespace was technology. Technology was science. You could depend on science. Couldn’t you?
The Hanged Man meant Snap’s telelink was whacked. He didn’t know how it happened, but he had to get himself fixed. And fast. The TeleSystems infrastructure proposal had a deadline. He was depending on landing this gig. He tried to cast away the thought of his debts stacking up, the rent due in a week, his empty fridge. His unemployment compensation had long since expired. He would wind up on the street if he didn’t land this gig.
Snap stroked the microbot’s gleaming back. Chickeeta nuzzled his elbow. If Snap were to give up Chickeeta on the street, bargain and sell the microbot, he’d be no better off than the sailor in the alley. He’d be without Chickeeta. He’d be no good at all.
“Gotta go downtown, big bopper,” Snap said, draining the last drops of the coffee.
“What’s happenin,’ massa?”
Microbots cannot really understand concepts, Snap reminded himself. They don’t have much memory, let alone intelligence. They just repeat routines they’ve learned.
“Need to check with Data Control. Ah, what am I saying. You don’t really know what I mean, right?”
Chickeeta winked. Or maybe the microbot just had to clean a speck of dust on its eyespot.
“I won’t be long,” Snap added, just in case.
Chickeeta ruefully picked at the shredded wrapper. The microbot was looking rather scruffy lately. So was Snap.
“I’ll get some decent grub for us, too, okay? I’ll charge it, what the hell.”
Microbots can’t smile, either, but a grin curved Chickeeta’s beak. “Charge it, what the hell, heh, heh, heh!”
*   *   *
The gridlock idled downtown, emitting a filthy haze over the morning. The toiling masses were decked out in their facemasks and oxygen tanks. Since the air-borne San Joaquin fever caused a half million deaths in the city last year and toxic fumes claimed nearly another million, masks and tanks had become a necessity, despite escalating robberies and police protests.
To read the rest of “The Hanged Man” and find out how Snap solves his problem, the woman he meets who changes his life, and an Afterword about the story’s setting, please join Join my Patreon page at and support me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve got lots of goodies for you there—more stories, recipes, movie reviews, book excerpts—with more on the way.
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Updated for 2019! Published in print in seven countries and as an ebook on eighteen markets worldwide.
As I mulled over my published short fiction, I found seven wildly different stories with one thing in common–a heroine totally unlike me. I’m the girl next door. I have no idea where these strange ladies came from.
In The Oniomancer (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), a Chinese-American punk bicycle messenger finds an artifact on the street. In Guardian (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), an African-American gallerist resorts to voodoo to confront a criminal. In Felicitas (Desire Burn: Women Writing from the Dark Side of Passion [Carroll and Graf]), an immigrant faces life as a cat shapeshifter. In Stripper (Unique Magazine), an exotic dancer battles the Mob. In Triad (Universe 2 [Bantam]), Dana Anad lives half the time as a woman, half the time as a man, and falls in love with a very strange lady. In Destination (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), a driver takes three strangers from a ride board on a cross-country trip as the radio reports that a serial killer is on the loose. In Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis (Fantastic Alice [Ace]), Alice considers life after Wonderland.
Five stars on Facebook and Amazon! “Great work, Lisa Mason!”
“Hilarious, provocative, profound.”
From Jeanne-Mary Allen, Author on Facebook and the Book Brothers Blog: “Kyle Wylde and I are thrilled to have found such a talented, dedicated, and brilliant collection of shorts in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories…Your style/craft is highly impressive.”
From the San Francisco Book Review: “Strange Ladies: 7 Stories offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
From the Book Brothers Review Blog: “Lisa Mason might just be the female Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….Strange Ladies: 7 Stories is a sci-fi collection of excellent quality. If you like deeply crafted worlds with strange, yet relatable characters, then you won’t want to miss it.”
5.0 out of 5 stars This one falls in the must-read category, an appellation that I rarely use.
“I have been a fan of Lisa Mason from the beginning of her writing career, but I confess that I often overlook her short fiction. That turns out to have been a big mistake! I have just read Strange Ladies thinking I would revisit a few old friends and discover a few I had missed. Well, I had missed more than I had thought, and I regret that oversight. This collection was so much fun! I loved each and every story and enjoyed their unique twists, turns, and insights. I thank Ms Mason especially, though, for the high note ending with the big smiles in Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis. Uh oh, I guess I still am a child of the summer of love. Well played. You made me laugh at the world and myself.”
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”—Amazing Stories
5.0 out of 5 stars Great collection that will make you think
Format: Kindle Edition
“My definition of a good short story is one that you keep thinking about for days, and this book had several of them.”
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo.
On Kindle at US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories is in Print in the U.S., in the U.K., in Germany, in France, in Spain, in Italy, and in Japan.
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