Flash Fiction Challenge #1: “Visitation of Irba”

I recently asked people on Twitter and Facebook for random writing prompts, and from those, I wrote five micro and flash fiction stories to share here on my site. The others are:

This story is courtesy of Paul Michael Anderson, who suggested a story with an orphan and an old man, using the Christ story. All in a flash length piece of fiction. (No pressure, right?) That idea resulted in 1185 words — the top of what’s usually considered “flash” — posted below.

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Visitation of Irba

“It’s hot,” Dominik said, pulling at the sweat-damp fabric of his shirt with his slender fingers. “I don’t like it out here.” The little boy sighed then, a long breath that seemed to pull his whole body down as he exhaled. “It’s been all day already,” he said.

“It’s my birthday,” he added hopefully, after a while.

“Of course it is, little bunny,” the old man replied. He was the only other person Dominik could see, in any direction. “That’s why we’re here.”

Dominik looked around. “The sun is setting, though.”

“I’m sorry,” the old man said. “I thought it would be sooner, but we need to wait for it to happen.” He opened a pocket on his faded grey jacket. “I have saved this for you,” he said as he handed over an orange lollipop, still in a wrapper. “It is the last one, so take your time.”

“The last one ever, Grandpa?”

“Maybe,” the man said. “I hope not. Orange is my favorite flavor.”

“Mine, too.” Dominik unwrapped it carefully, handing over the torn plastic. His grandfather tucked the wrapper into his pocket, hand trembling slightly.

“Tell me about that one,” Dominik said, pointing at his grandfather’s chest before plopping the candy into his mouth. A faint breeze kicked up dust at their feet.

“It’s when they made me a general.”

“And that one?” Dominik asked around a mouthful of lollipop, pointing at a different medal.

“That was for living.”

“You get a medal for living?”

“You do when you’re the only one,” his grandfather said quietly. After a moment of silence, he added, “It was for Volgograd. For the battles.”

“I remember that one. The smoke blacked out the sun.”

“Volgograd was lost before you were born. You’re thinking of when Leninsk fell.”

“Oh.”

The air stilled, hot and dry.

After a while, Dominik took the lollipop stick from his mouth, slightly chewed. He rolled it between his fingers, back and forth. The old man took a worn handkerchief from his pants pocket and dabbed at his brow, watching the child, but saying nothing. Eventually, Dominik put his hand out, holding the stick above the hardened dirt. He looked at his grandfather.

“Why does it matter if we drop our trash?” Dominik asked, not for the first time. He hadn’t let go of the stick, though.

“You know why.” Dominik didn’t speak. “Fine,” the man said, “you will hear it again. We’ve destroyed enough of this world. The cities are gone. Even villages like what used to be here, are gone. Your parents – my daughter Marya – all gone.” The man coughed, a tiny sound, quickly muffled when he put the handkerchief to his mouth.

When he took it away, Dominik could see spots of red on it. “I’m sorry, Grandfather,” he said. He put the lollipop stick into the pocket of his shorts, and made a show of patting his pocket. “There. It won’t fall out.” He smiled, the first time in hours.

“I need you to be a good boy,” the man said, “because I was not.” He picked up the bottle at his feet, and shook it. Only a little water remained, sloshing around the bottom.

Dominik looked at the bottle thirstily, but didn’t reach for it. Instead, he asked, “Will you tell me a story? From when you were my age?”

The man placed the bottle into Dominik’s hands, gently pushing it toward him. As the boy gulped down the last of the water, a distant rumble grew closer. The ground trembled beneath their feet, and then stopped. Dominik looked all around in a panic, but his grandfather put a hand on his shoulder.

“When I was exactly your age,” he said, “I lived in the village this used to be. We called it Irba. The stone we sit on used to be the wall of the church where I was baptized.” He coughed again – Dominik grabbed his arm, but his grandfather gently waved him off. “I am fine, little bunny. Everything will be good again soon.” But he looked older than he had that morning, and in the places where he wasn’t red from the sun, his skin was gray.

“I was a happy child,” the man continued. “I loved being here with my mother. Her name was Marya, too.”

Dominik made a face. “I don’t remember her.”

“My mother died before you were born.”

“No,” Dominik said quietly. “I don’t remember my mother. Maybe, but I’m not sure.”

The old man took the child into his arms then, holding him stiffly, without saying anything for several minutes. When he spoke, his voice cracked.

“My father died before I was born, so all of my early happiness was due to my mother. She was a saint, and she loved me. But when she married my step-father, Josef, all of my days were joy. He loved us both, and made certain we knew it.”

Something black streaked overhead, falling impossibly fast at the earth before them, trailing smoke. It crashed, throwing up debris and noise and a hot wind that rushed through the scraggly trees and blew dust into their faces. Dominik cried out, and buried his face in his grandfather’s jacket.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” the man said softly. “It’s far away. Now listen, quick, listen – the day is almost over, so it’s going to happen soon, the reason we’re here.” He coughed, hard, then continued. “When I was exactly your age, an angel came to me. An angel, Dominik! It was glorious.”

The boy looked up, tears making his dirty face. “Here?”

“Yes, right here. This exact spot. It came to me and offered me a path to heaven. A chance to be righteous and good, to heal the world.” The old man, older now, older than Dominik had ever seen him, his eyes wet, stared directly out in front of them. “I was foolish, though. I wanted to be a carpenter like my step-father. I didn’t want my mother to see me as anything but her little boy. I said no.

“I said no, and the world died.”

Dominik jumped up suddenly, pointing at a distant figure at the edge of the treeline, too far away to make out. “Who is that?”

His grandfather squinted. “I do not know. It doesn’t matter, the sun is setting, look!” Dominik could see the sky had become orange, the color of dusk, the color of candy. “It will be any moment now, Dominik, please!” The old man grabbed the child by the shoulders, turning him around.

In the distance, the one figure had become many.

“You can say yes. You can be better than I was.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“You won’t. You won’t! I will always be with you. But you can fix all of this. You can save us.”

The boy was crying hard now. Far away, the figures could be heard shouting, indistinguishable sounds growing closer.

“The angel will come. Don’t be scared. Any moment now, the angel will come.”

Dominik nodded. “Because it’s my birthday, right grandfather?”

The old man hugged him tight.

Poem: Ephyra

EPHYRA

Dressed in darkness, I tumble into dawn
To run salt-scented, empty asphalt
Space my neighbors have abandoned
Since streetlamps, transfigured
Hatched airborne jellies, now
Untethered, slowly drifting past
Sporadic bioluminscence:
An ocean’s liberated dream

Close to these shy miracles, I
Regret my awkward novice stride
And that I slept while they were born
Now icy puddles splash bare feet
Knees ache carrying my weight
Skin sweats, chaps, and chafes –
But above me, floating free,
Those silent creatures light my way.

– Carrie Cuinn

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First reviews of my latest story, “That Lucky Old Sun”

In January, Apex Magazine published my short story, “That Lucky Old Sun”, to my great delight. You can read it online for free, here. (You can also buy the whole issue for Kindle here.) If you haven’t read it yet, be warned that there are minor spoilers below.

I was nervous before “That Lucky Old Sun” came out; it’s the longest short story I’ve published to date, and it plays with an old SF trope in a way that readers might either love, or hate, or not notice at all. You can never tell until a story ends up in the world and out of your hands. I was more nervous because this story is important to me. They all are, of course, though some of what I write is fun, some is dark, some is about projecting the future – I’m usually pushing at the edges of what I can do in a story, but the boundaries I’m pushing aren’t always the same.

In classic, golden age SF, we have these grand stories about building rockets, escaping doomed worlds, blasting off into space with limitless potential in front of us. I could write that again a hundred times, and who would question it? We know that tale. We’ve all read it. With this story, I wanted to talk about the people who get left behind. Not the rocket scientists or astronauts or the child looking out the porthole at a dwindling blue marble that used to be his home. Just regular, everyday people. Families. Neighbors. Small town folks, faced with things much bigger than themselves.

I am so happy with how it’s been received.

Amelia Crowly said:

This really gave me chills.
I love the way it *seems* to set the scene at once, only to become darker and more intriguing as the story progressed.

On Twitter, @robertired said:

It’s amazing. Subverting old school sci-fi is something that should be done more. Congratulations.

@ScottMBeggs said:

Beautiful short story from (via ). Uses the familiar to deliver the unexpected.

@MariaHaskins called it:

Wonderful, creeping-up-on-you #scifi

And @LaurenLykke said:

Just read and LOVED your story in !! Got me all teary-eyed!

Over at Tangent Online, Kevin P. Halett said:

Carrie’s “end of the world” science fiction story is time and world ambiguous, telling this often-told story from a new perspective. The protagonist is a small girl, innocuously spending what could be her last day with her loving mother, who knows what’s coming. The author touchingly portrays the mother’s loving patience and the girl’s innocence in this easy to read tale.

Telling the story from the little girl’s perspective made it darker and more compelling. I found the writing engaging from the very beginning and it continued to hold me even though I could guess where it might end; a pleasing new variation on an old theme.

Lastly, and with the most spoilers… At Quick Sip Reviews, Charles Payseur said:

………….okay then. Yeah, this story is a bit dark, a bit…well, a bit very dark, about a child, Melanie, and her mother as they sort-of wait for the end of the world. The setting is vaguely futuristic and also rather dystopian, a place where people are judged based on their skin but not exactly the way that they are now. Here it’s not exactly race it seems but something in the blood that changes the skin’s color and might do other things to it. Whatever the case, it means that there are vast systems in place to try and “contain” it, mostly by reporting on neighbors and living in a police state and it’s an all around not-good scene. And yet the “problem” persists and so the government decided to just bomb everything. Bomb it all and then return to reclaim the wiped slate. And that the story follows a mother and her daughter on this day is bleak as fuck, but also I rather enjoyed it. There is something to be said about this, that this is where fascism leads, that this is where intolerance and bigotry lead. That there are “understanding” people who are just part of the problem and that everything is built on hate without reason, hate because that’s all it is, and in the end it tears everything apart, tears families apart and lets the central lie of the story fester and burn like the fires of the bombs being dropped. Because a large part of the story is the absence of the father, who is “pure” and who has the chance to survive. It’s a wrenching story and a sad one, very much worth reading but maybe prepare some cat videos for the aftermath. Indeed.

New Publication, and Readercon 2014

My story, “How to Recover a Relative Lost During Transmitter Shipping, In Five Easy Steps“, is now online at Unlikely Story, for their Cartography special issue. Though it is technically about a map, for me the story is more about the idea of a map as a description of the places you’ve been along the way to where you’re going. The map you draw for others isn’t always accurate, even though you may think it is. The path is bent as you react to obstacles along the way, or filled in from hazy memories and half-guesses. Looking back, you’re tempted to see the past as the whole of the map, when it’s only your perspective on display. It may be true. It might not.

“How to Recover a Relative Lost During Transmitter Shipping, In Five Easy Steps” is told as an interview with a woman who accidentally became part of something enormous, when she thought she’d lost someone whose impact was only enormous to her. Here’s an excerpt:

Interviewer’s note: Amrita Chakrabarty agreed to this meeting only after several concessions were agreed to. First, that we wouldn’t discuss the contentious court battle she and her family had only recently settled; second, that we wouldn’t discuss the theoretical science in more than a passing way, as it applied to the events themselves; and third, that I didn’t ask about her relationship with her younger brother, Shikhar, beyond what she was willing to disclose on her own. The reader, no doubt already familiar with the hundreds of other articles on what’s now called “The Chakrabarty Wormhole Map,” can piece together for themselves why that might be the case.

Q: Let’s go back to the very beginning. What was your first hint that your brother and his friends had done something monumental?

AC: Nothing feels monumental until after it’s over and you realize what’s happened. This thing, which is so huge and impossible to escape now, was annoying to begin with. Frustrating, and then scary, but looking back, I can see why it’s been painted as something of an adventure. That sounds fun, right? A grand escapade.

The title of your book, which comes from the first set of instructions you wrote, makes it sound simple.

Yeah, that was a marketing thing. It wasn’t simple at all.

You can read the rest of the issue here. It also includes work from Sarah Pinsker, Rhonda Eikamp, Kat Howard, James Van Pelt, and Shira Lipkin.

I don’t have the schedule yet, but I’ll be on a panel at Readercon discussing imaginary cities and invented cartography, along with other folks from the Unlikely Story issue. Last version of the description I read was:

This summer, Unlikely Story will publish their Unlikely Cartography issue, featuring stories by Shira Lipkin, Kat Howard, Sarah Pinsker, Carrie Cuinn, and others. Together with editor A.C. Wise, these authors will discuss their stories, and other authors (historical and modern) who similarly explored the cartography of the fantastic. Influences and discussion topics may include Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Eco’s Legendary Lands, Post’s Atlas of Fantasy, Mieville’s The City and the City, and more.

I can’t wait!

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My story, “On the Methods of Preserving and Dissecting Icthyo Sapiens” is now live at Mad Scientist Journal

My favorite bit of mad science fiction is free to read online, along with a perfect illustration by Shannon Legler. From my story:

Lab Notes, April 23, 1931. The subject has four limbs, but while its skin appears crocodilian, the limbs are not fixed under the body. Instead they appear to be jointed much as a man’s are, with longer back legs and a wide range of motion in the shorter front legs.

Water is everywhere. It is, always, since the earliest memories of my life. I feel it as a warm pressure on every part of my skin. It is an ever-moving source of air for my lungs and food for my belly. When the currents are strong it becomes thick enough to sit on, to grab a hold of and ride. The water is never still because it is never empty. I can taste the time of day.

Though it has a mouth and front facing eyes, it does not appear to breathe air, and instead has several gills hidden under heavy scales on its neck which are easy to miss. Kudos to Johnson for noticing them, or the thing might have drowned before we got its head and neck into a bucket of water.

Read the rest here.