Sneak Peek Story Extracts
You’ve heard of bottled cities, no doubt; society writ miniscule and delicate beyond reason—toothpick spired towns, streets no thicker than thread, pin-prick faces of the citizenry peering from office windows smaller than sequins. Hustle, politics, fervor, struggle, capitulation, wrapped in a crystal firmament, stoppered at the top to keep reality both in and out. Those microscopic lives, striking glass at the edge of things, believed themselves gigantic, their dilemmas universal.
Our research suggested that Daltharee had many multi-storied buildings carved right into its hillsides. Surrounding the city there was a forest with lakes and streams. And all of it was contained within a dome, like a dinner beneath the lid of a serving dish. When the inhabitants of Daltharee looked up, they were prepared to not see the heavens. They knew that the light above, their Day, was generated by a machine, which they oiled and cared for. The stars that shone every sixteen hours when Day left darkness behind were simple bulbs regularly changed by a man in a hot air balloon.
They were convinced that the domed city floated upon an iceberg, which it actually did. There was one door in the wall of the dome at the end of a certain path through the forest. When opened, it led out onto the ice. The surface of the iceberg extended the margin of one of their miles all around the enclosure. Blinding snows fell, winds constantly roared in a perpetual blizzard. Their belief was that Daltharee drifted upon the oceans of an otherwise frozen world. They prayed for the end of eternal winter, so they might reclaim the continents.
And all of this: their delusions, the city, the dome, the iceberg, the two quarts of water it floated upon, were contained within an old gallon glass milk bottle, plugged at the top with a tattered handkerchief and painted dark blue. When I put my ear to the glass, I heard, like the ocean in a seashell, fierce gales blowing.
From “Daddy Long Legs of the Evening”
It was said that when he was a small child, asleep in his bed one end-of-summer night, a spider crawled into his ear, traversed a maze of canals, eating slowly through membrane and organ, to discover the cavern of the skull. Then that spider burrowed in a spiral pattern through the electric gray cake of the brain to the very center of it all, where it hollowed out a large nest for itself and reattached neural pathways with the thread of its web. It played the boy like a zither, plucking the silver strings of its own design, creating a music that directed both will and desire.
Before the invasion of his cranium, the child was said to have been quite a little cherub—big green eyes and a wave of golden hair, rosy cheeks, an infectious laugh. His parents couldn’t help showing him off at every opportunity and regaling passersby with a litany of his startling attributes, not the least of which was the ability to recite verbatim the bedtime stories read to him each night. Many a neighbor had been subjected to an oration of the entirety of “The Three Rum Runtkins.”
A change inside wrought a change outside, though, and over the course of a few months the boy’s eyes bulged and drained of all color to become million-faceted buds of gleaming onyx. His legs and arms grew long and willowy, but his body stayed short with a small but pronounced potbelly, like an Adam’s apple in the otherwise slender throat that was his form. Although a fine down of thistle grew in patches across his back, arms, and thighs, he went bald, losing even brows and lashes. His flesh turned a pale gray, hinting at violet; his incisors grew to curving points and needed to be clipped and filed back like fingernails.
From “Exo-Skeleton Town”
An hour ago, I came out of Spid’s Smoke House and saw Clark Gable scoring a couple balls of dung off an Aphid twice his size. It was broad moonlight, and Gable should have known better, but I could see by the state of his getup and the deflation of his hair wave that he was strung out on loneliness. I might have warned him, but what the hell, he’d end up taking me down with him. Instead I stepped back into the shadows of the alleyway and waited for the Beetle Squad to show up. I watched Gable flash his rakish smile, but frankly Scarlet, that Aphid didn’t give a damn. When he gave up on the ancient film charm and flashed the cash instead, the bug handed over two nice little globes, sweating the freasence in droplets of bright silver. Love was in the air.
Then they descended, iridescent in the dim light of the streetlamps, circling in like a flock of Earth geese landing on a pond. The Beetles were always hot for action and they had a directive that allowed them to kill first and ask questions later. The Aphid they just kicked the crap out of until it looked like a yellow pancake with green syrup, but Gable was another story. Because he was human, they shot him once with a stinger gun, and when the needle pierced his exo-flesh, the real him blew out the hole with an indelicate frrrappp and turned to juice on the street. The dung balls were retrieved, Gable’s outer skin was swiped, the bluebottles swooped in for a feeding, and twenty minutes later there was nothing left but half a mustache and a crystal coin good for three tokes at Spid’s. I crossed the street, picked up the crystal and went back into my home away from home away from home.
This is Exo-Skeleton Town, the dung-rolling capitol of the universe, where the sun never shines and bug folk barter their excremental wealth for Earth movies almost two centuries old. There’s a slogan in Exo-town concerning its commerce — “Sell it or smell it,” the locals say. The air pressure is intense, and everything moves in slow motion.
From “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General”
In his later years, when he spoke, a faint whirring came from his lower jaw. His mouth opened and closed rhythmically, accurately, displaying a full set of human teeth gleaned from fallen comrades and the stitched tube of plush leather that was his tongue. The metal mustache and eyebrows were ridiculously fake, but the eyes were the most beautiful glass facsimiles, creamy white with irises like dark blue flowers. Instead of hair, his scalp was sand paper.
He wore his uniform still, even the peaked cap with the old emblem of the Galaxy Corps embroidered in gold. He creaked when he walked, piston compressions and the click of a warped flywheel whispering within his trousers. Alternating current droned from a faulty fuse in his solar plexus, and occasionally, mostly on wet days, sparks wreathed his head like a halo of bright gnats. He smoked a pipe, and before turning each page of a newspaper, he’d bring his chrome index finger to his dry rubber slit of a mouth as if he were moistening its tip.
His countenance, made of an astounding, pliable, non-flammable, blast-beam resistant, self-healing, rubber alloy, was supposedly sculpted in homage to the dashing looks of Rendel Sassoon, star of the acclaimed film epic, For God and Country. Not everyone saw the likeness, and Sassoon, himself, a devout pacifist, who was well along in years when the general took his first steps out of the laboratory, sued for defamation of character. But once the video started coming back from the front, visions of slaughter more powerful than any celluloid fantasy, mutilated Harvang corpses stacked to the sky, the old actor donned a flag pin on his lapel and did a series of war bond television commercials of which the most prominent feature was his nervous smile.
From “The Dreaming Wind”
Each and every year, in that brief time when summer and autumn share the same bed—the former, sunburned and exhausted, drifting toward sleep, the latter, rousing to the crickets’ call and the gentle brush of the first falling leaves against its face—the Dreaming Wind swept down from somewhere in the distant north, heading somewhere to the distant south, leaving everywhere in its wake incontrovertible proof of the impossible.
Our town, like the others lying directly in the great gale’s path, was not exempt from the bizarre changes wrought by its passing. We prepared ourselves as best we could, namely in our hearts and minds, for there was no place to hide from it even though you might crawl into the crawl space beneath your house and pull a blanket over your head. No manner of boarding windows, stuffing towels beneath the doors, turning out the lights, or jumping into a lead lined coffin and pulling shut the lid, made a wit’s worth of difference. Somehow it always found you and had its crazy way.
So it was that each year, often on a deep blue afternoon in late August or early September, some of us noticed the leaves in the trees begin to rustle and heard amid their branches, just a whisper at first, the sound of running water. Then we knew to warn the others. “The Wind, the Wind,” was the cry throughout the streets of town, and Hank Garrett, our constable, climbed up to the platform on the roof of his house and turned the crank handle siren to alert farmers out in the fields of the valley that the blowing chaos was on its way. The citizens of Lipara scurried home, powerless to affect any protection, but determined to share the burden of strangeness with loved ones and bolster the faith of the young that it wouldn’t last forever.
In a heartbeat, in an eye-blink, the wind was upon us, bending saplings, rattling windows, lifting dust devils in the town square, as though it had always been there, howling throughout our lives. Even down in a root cellar, thick oaken door barred above, hiding in the dark, you heard it and once you heard it you felt it upon your face and the back of your neck, your arms, like some invisible substance gently embracing you in its cocoon. That’s when you knew the wind was beginning to dream you.
Its name, the Dreaming Wind, was more indicative than you might at first believe. What is a dream, but a state founded enough upon the everyday to be believable to the sleeping mind and yet also a place wherein anything at all might and often does happen. Tomes of wonders, testaments of melancholic horrors wrought by the gale had been recorded, but I’ll merely recount some of the things I, myself, had been privy to in the years I’d witnessed the phenomenon.