Taking the Nine to the Last Shop
by Craig Robert Saunders
The last shop before the fog is my favourite shop of all. It has candy, which is best. It sells shrimp which never, ever goes off, krill, newspapers, mops and buckets, and air packets you can open that tickle your tentacles just like the popping candy, which Grandma lets me have even though she hates the sound of the air packs and the poppers. She likes the hardboiled sweets. They have what seems like endless rows of jars of those behind the counter. You can buy things for the house there, and things for dull days when the seas are hard and rough and you can’t go out, or when the fog’s so heavy it squashes you up so you can’t see above your parapet, and all you can do is draw yourself inside and listen to your mother muttering and feel the sway of Grandma moving underneath you both.
I’m a nine and Grandma’s like a seven billion or something. We’re broodings. Mom, me, we all come from Grandma, and we’ve got her glow, and in the village people say we’re beautiful, but we all come from Grandma and live on Grandma’s belly, so it’s not saying much. I don’t think she’s beautiful, and she’s probably not actually a seven billion, but when she’s out, her tentacles way above her parapet, she’s a grand sight. I’ve only got nine tentacles, and to me it always seems hers are uncountable, especially when they’re all reaching up, and when they’re out like they are now, you just know things are going to go the way she wants.
She says she’s taking the nine to the shop – me – and my momma sighs and says okay.
It’s just the bus. The bus clacks, bobs up and down and little Grandma tuts and her mouth puckers as though she’s unhappy with the way the bus bobs up and down, but she’s always got a smile for me and Grandma never gets angry at me about anything. Momma says I’ve got Grandma wrapped around my little column, but I don’t know what that means, not quite, because I live on Grandma’s belly so that’s a stupid sort of expression, isn’t it?
Grandma says their used to ought to be hundreds of buses, going this way, that way. Now? There’s just the one bus. It goes from the village, along the green, to the shop. There isn’t a school, or a doctors, and the endless things Grandma tells me there used to ought to be.
Not long now ‘til I’m going away, she says often. Momma cries, but it’s not like Grandma’s dying. She’ll still be Grandma. She’ll just be smaller, like a baby version of her. Won’t be momma, and it won’t be me.
My Grandma’s pretty cool. She makes tiny Grandmas. That’s awesome. I can’t make tiny mes. One day, I will, she says. I don’t believe her, not quite, but I sort of like the idea. Little mes. They’ll leave, though, those smaller parts of myself, and that makes me sad.
I don’t know how I feel about Grandma going away though. She told the whole village, and most of them understand, but I don’t, not really. It’s worse when the fog’s squashy, but then Grandma bobbles me up, and down, and up, and down, and it’s like rocking and it comforts me. Momma’s not big enough to wobble me on her belly yet. I think she’s jealous she can’t, but I’m not really sure about that, either. Momma’s quite attached to Grandma. I guess I’m further away. Momma understands why Grandma’s going, and she doesn’t like it. Me? I don’t understand. It’s complicated, like why popping candy pops. I don’t get it but that doesn’t make it less awesome. I’m nine. I’m not expected to be super smart but I’m going to the shop and that’s good enough.
When Grandma comes to get me, it’s just a little one of her. She’s just like Grandma, just like me. Same stripes, mostly flat but tall when she wants, and even though it’s just a baby of her, she still has more tentacles than me. Plus, she’s Grandma, and she’s really great, even if she’s just a tiny thing, sliding over her own belly, me in tow, to the bus stop.
We go into the Shop, and there’s a bell which rings and Gladstone comes out with three smiles on their faces.
“Grandma,” says Gladstone.
“Gladstone,” says Grandma, her tone stern, an ululation that makes me giggle because she’s only tiny but she still so bossy.
She says Gladstone’s handsy, and to watch out, but I don’t really know what that means, and Gladstone doesn’t have hands, they have orifices and waving parts and their colour’s just the same as Grandma’s, after all.
Gladstone sucks a newspaper into their orbulae and it comes out with a bribibib sound, neat as you like into Grandma’s terminal at the end of one of her tentacles. She never drops anything, but it’s not Gladstone’s trick which impresses me, but more that I thought it a funny sound, and while Grandma might call Gladstone handsy to me, she says it’s not polite to make fun of people’s bribibibs and such.
I can’t help it, though.
“Cool spit, Gladstone. Good bribibibing.”
They grants me seven smiles and Grandma a glare, but the word makes my orifice flap and tickle a bit and that makes me laugh, too. She can’t stay mad at me for long. Gladstone, that’s another matter.
The shop is at the end of the road. Beyond the shop there’s only the fog. Grandma says there used to ought to be thousands and thousands of roads every which way, but there aren’t. The shop butts right up to the thick fog.
We leave, I wave to Gladstone, and the bus is there, outside. I’ve got sweets, she’s got her paper. We’re going home.
“Go on, then,” says Grandma. “Hop on.”
I look at the bus, and it looks weird, and wrong, and while I’m only a nine, I’m not entirely stupid. I’m Grandma’s child, after all.
It looks weird because it’s facing the wrong way. I tell Grandma.
“Never wondered how it turned round?” says Grandma. Her smile’s kind enough, but I feel she’s taking me for a ride.
“Is this because I laughed about Gladstone?” I say. I feel a tear rolling down my column, and a childish shake begin.
“Don’t be daft,” says Grandma. “You’re a nine, aren’t you?”
“Well, time to stop being a baby. Go on. Get in.”
“But Grandma…it’s going toward the fog.”
“Did you think Gladstone’s was the only shop in the all-of-it?”
“Yes,” I say, simply.
She thinks about this.
“Maybe you did,” she says. “But it’s not. Come on. The bus is leaving and Fupa can’t let it go ‘til we get on. Poor old thing’s not strong like they used to ought to be, and neither am I. We’ve got hardboiled sweets, though, eh?”
My ears go cold with excitement, might be a little fear in there somewhere, too, but Grandma takes me under a bubble of mucus and comforts me, like I’m all wrapped in a baby shooff. She makes the cooing, shimmery, soothing noises I like. Fupa lets go and Grandma’s tentacles slide around me, like she’s holding me on, but Fupa’s good at slinging the bus no matter what Grandma says.
Am I expecting we’ll just roll through the fog? Bob out and away, no more exciting than plopping without ceremony through damp tendrils and into a simple adventure like looking out at a village green?
Is that the fear? That it’ll be anti-climatic, a big flop on a belly, like a trick when momma said do you want a cuddle but tickled instead?
Like expectation, dashed. Even a nine understands how that feels. Maybe Grandma more than me. She probably knows disappointment very well. She’s like a seven billion.
Maybe that’s a bit of growing up. Understanding the disappointments of others.
One day, she says, you’ll be a Grandma. I don’t believe her, of course. Why would I? I’m a nine, been to the last shop and we’ve got hardboiled sweets. I’m not thinking those thoughts.
It isn’t a disappointment, though. It’s brilliance, pure brilliance.
We hurtle out through the fog.
It’s not fog. It’s just a shimmering wall.
I grin, and wibble, and wobble, and tiny Grandma wobbles too, laughing and happy for my happiness, just like Grandma always is. It’s weird. She’s tiny, and we’re both on the bus, and for some reason I feel like I want to look after her, and that’s what’s odd, I suppose.
Then we drop, I scream, and we soar, and I whoop with crystal-crisp joy.
I pop my head out, finally, from the shooffy-bed of mucus around me, and see.
“Grandma,” I say in my quietest voice, which momma says I don’t actually have. I do, I just use it very rarely. “What is that?”
“That? That there’s space. Now, see that? Behind, girl. See the shop?”
We sit at the rear of the bus, and I turn, shimming up and up to make myself tall as I can, and peer backward. Gladstone’s shop is there, but I see the road, too, the village, home, mother…
She’s waving her tentacles and I wave back, shout out for her, but I don’t know if she hears me all the way out here, or sees me where it’s so bright and colourful. I fill all up with a feeling I never knew before.
“Feel that?” she says.
“What is it?” I say.
“I don’t know,” says Grandma. “Isn’t that the most magical thing?”
Her smile’s just as childlike as mine.
I hold onto her again and look at the clouds, the glory of a vast black sea where other clouds bob upon it, just like ours. I gawp at twinkling distant lights, at the bright arms of twirling, dancing starfish doing cart wheels through the space, the happy gravid mommas and Grandmas, the nines, the fifty-sixes, all the children and other things I don’t know, some just as young as me and some wonders which seem far, far old than even Grandma. Not seven billions or something, but numbers I don’t know, can’t imagine.
We lap aniseed twists and sweet krill crunches in our mouths as the bus goes right on by a thousand, thousand things. I don’t need the toilet, and I’m not thirsty. Grandma beside me, we look out at the thing called space. It seems fragile and expensive. A glittering sheet, like edible paper hung up in Gladstone’s, but sugary and huge and delicate, too, and I worry someone careless might be thinking about a comic, or a sweet, or a trip to the last shop and not look where they were going and walk right through it and tear a hole big as me.
“Grandma? What if we break it?”
She shook her head. “Fupa’s a bit flimsy between the lobes, but they can manage to drive a bus through space.”
I don’t know how long we’re out, but the aniseed twists and the krill-crunch are all gone when Grandma rings the bell for our stop.
“This is us,” Grandma says to me. “Pick up your wrappers.”
I feel the bus slow, the nice feeling of sliding forward, and back. Just a moment, when I might go either way.
“Can we just…go on?” I ask.
“Of course,” says Grandma. “Near enough for ever. But the bus has to stop, doesn’t it? Fupa’s not as young as you, baby.”
“Can we take the bus again, Grandma?”
“Sure,” she says, pleased, I think.
Momma waits for us, her tentacles in and out as though she doesn’t quite know what to do with them, but Grandma forestalls any telling off we might be due for being gone so long.
“Daughter, she’s a nine, and she’s due, so don’t squish yourself up like that. When you were a nine, my mother took you?”
“It was wonderful!” I say. “Wonderful! There were…”
Mother’s column rises little by little. Even she can’t be mad for long when I’m full of wonder like that and won’t stop talking. The more I natter, the brighter she seems, and eventually she potters about same as always.
I pretend dinner is planets, and Momma’s mouth-orifice a shiny and slippery kind of space, which makes her shudder like it tickles.
“I had the best nine,” I say as I slip atop Grandma and nestle beside Momma.
I go down that night sore from chatting (mostly to myself) while she bustles around and Grandma spreads contentedly beneath.
As I drift, I think I hear them speaking.
“Did she want to go, Mom?”
“Do you?” asked Grandma.
“Yes and no,” said Mother. “Mom…do you?”
“Yes and no,” says Grandma.
Me, too, I think. It’s so big.
“I’ll miss us,’ said Mother, and I feel a shift as Grandma hugs her, and that comforts me.
Grandma snores, Momma budges up next to me, and sleep takes a long time while I stare up at the fog and have to use my imagination. It’s not fog, though, only a wall, and there’s always something the other side of a wall. Like a little baby Grandma, I think, when I wake. Baby Grandma’s gone, but the biggest part of her is still there, and I’m resting on her belly. I smile, snuggle back inside myself and it’s a good morning. The fog’s not pushing in anymore. It’s just hiding me away, like Grandma does, until I’m ready. For me to go, or her, I’m not sure, but I think going to the shop before that small Grandma left was important.
Not like a birthday. A lesson in goodbye. A lesson in joy, too.
I’m not sure why, because I’m only a nine, but I know it’s true.
The Ladybug, In Flight
by Bogi Takács
It is good to be small; it is good to be many.
A hundred, a thousand, five thousand. We swarm where we can find nourishment – and because we are constructs, nourishment is inorganic.
We gobble up space crystals; we shine our beam of light on time crystals to get the process in motion, then feed on the oscillations.
Do you know about symmetry-breaking? These crystals have less symmetry than a glop of liquid.
But of course, I’m just a tiny ladybug – my brain quasi-organic, my outer layers made of a curious alloy. My sentience forming from the swarm.
And we are often hungry.
There are entire ecosystems in space. Near the planets with nurseries where the large sentient ships grow, there is enough crystal crumble to support us, so that the ships can feed on the output of our digestive processes.
Preferably not on us.
That’s after they’re grown; when they are growing, they feed on people.
I am told the people like it.
Sometimes we chance upon nonsentient ships, chunks of metal or plastic floating aimlessly. That’s when we get to work. We know how to use an airlock if we find one; we know how to find breaches in the hull if we don’t. If our swarm is big enough, we know how to circumvent conventional physics, teleport inside.
Sometimes we find people alive, like you; usually when we do, they don’t attempt to talk. We are practiced at communicating without appearing to communicate. We are often not given the benefit of doubt.
Unlike this time; and thus, now we are cheerful.
I am inordinately happy when someone comments on my spots.
You are a small human, but that’s all right – when you grow up, the ships can feed on you. If you want to try.
That’s not the real reason why I guide you back to Alliance space.
You can look around, but there’s only one of me inside – the hull of your ship remains sturdy. We could not force our way in, and teleporting takes a lot of effort.
If you can find the right camera output, you will see us swarming outside. I think we are beautiful, but you humans think your own nonsentient ships are beautiful. Clearly our standpoints are different.
But you like my spots. You might like this too.
I am sorry the others are unconscious. You are an exception, maybe in more ways than one.
Maybe the others won’t like us – there is always an element of risk involved.
It’s also a lot of effort to guide a ship home. But we are likewise searching, and it might help us too, to come along for the ride.
We were all made by the Empire Long Gone. We do not mourn empires – their names show us the original intent behind creating them. We aren’t invaders.
We only entered the ship because we were worried for you.
We aren’t tasty. This you’ll have to believe, because I don’t have any energy left to initiate my toxic spray, designed for emergency self-defense. It can use up ten percent of our body fluids, and I already used up close to twenty just to come inside.
I’m glad you don’t want to eat me; I’m glad we can clear up misunderstandings, even if you don’t understand all my words.
You will remember me when you grow.
Will you miss me? We miss them, all the people we met back in the day. Even the humans.
We liked knowing the people of the silver barrel. They also weren’t strictly organic or inorganic, really. They had human shapes, but they could change. Into swarms, even; this meant they could understand us. We miss them.
Will you let me sit on your shoulder?
I’m tired. I’m also searching for home.
If I take you to your home, maybe you can help me find mine. Home is other people, I heard the humans say – or maybe I misunderstood.
Yes, your humans. We felt the vibrations through your ship’s hull, and we have long since learned your language.
If we hurry up, your other humans will probably be able to wake up again.
In the meanwhile, I’ll sit on your shoulder like this, and now you can sing me that song, the one you’ve been mentioning. About the ladybug, in flight.
I’ll tell you the coordinates to input.
About the Authors
Craig Robert Saunders is the author of ‘Field of Heroes’, ‘Hush’ and ‘Lore’ – space opera, space fleet and space marine stories. Some of his favourite modern science fiction comes from Neal Asher, Andy Remic, Iain M. Banks, Dan Abnett and Richard Morgan. As a reader he’s a sucker for a great robot or a smart ship. His proudest moment to date is rare praise from Andy Remic for his novel ‘Field of Heroes’, which Andy described as ‘A powerhouse of action and war with an intrinsic dark humour reminiscent of Iain M. Banks.’
As Craig Saunders he’s written around fifty novels and novellas, including ‘Deadlift’, ‘Vigil’ and ‘A Stranger’s Grave’. As ‘Craig R. Saunders’ he penned the seven-book fantasy saga of the world of Rythe.
Since his first novel acceptance ‘Rain’ over ten years ago his short fiction has been published in periodicals, magazines, podcasts, ‘Best of’ anthologies, and his novellas have won a couple of awards. He’s been a top 100 bestselling horror and science fiction authors on Amazon, but it isn’t the New York Times so he doesn’t make a big song and dance about it.
Craig publishes science fiction with Severed Press. His latest horror ‘Red Ice Run’, co-written with Ryan C. Thomas, sold out through Thunderstorm Books. Due next are ‘Xenophobia’ (science fiction) and ‘It Always Rains when the Circus Comes to Town’ (horror). He also publishes novels independently under the Dark Fable Books/Fable Books labels and considers himself a hybrid author.
Craig writes in a shed and blogs about writing and his ongoing battle with schizophrenic affective disorder and he is a fierce advocate for mental health rights.
He’s always happy to talk over at www.craigrsaunders.blogspot.com, or on Twitter @Grumblesprout.
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender person (e/em/eir/emself or they pronouns) and a resident alien in the US. Bogi writes, edits and reviews speculative fiction and poetry, and you can find em at http://www.bogireadstheworld.com or on Twitter, Instagram and Patreon as bogiperson.
Eir debut poetry collection “Algorithmic Shapeshifting” is now available from Aqueduct Press, and eir debut short story collection “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” is coming in Fall 2019 from Lethe. Bogi has been a winner of the Lambda award, and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards.
About the Narrators
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and spec fic writer based in Canada. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog, Mythic Delirium, Automata Review, and many other venues.
She can be found with some regularity on Twitter at @premeesaurus.
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.