The Ashcliffe Party

(I couldn’t get this under the word limit by the deadline, so here I am for the YW Weekend Showcase! There were two prompts for #382: a character who is conceited, and answering the question, what if humans had no sight?)

The hall rang with laughter and the musical hum of guide suits. Hundreds of varieties of fine perfumes enveloped Mina and Tess as they entered one of London’s most talked-about social scenes. Mina felt her sister’s arm tremble under her gloved hand.

“What’s wrong?”

“Captain Wu is here,” Tess whispered. “I can hear his suit.”

“Well, stay calm – I’m sure Mrs. Ashcliffe can introduce you.”

A series of flute notes, increasing in pitch and frequency, announced the arrival of their brother, Felix. Mina felt her nose wrinkle.

“Felix, you’re wearing way too much cologne.”

“What? I want people to know I’m here.”

Tess’ voice was muffled; Mina guessed she was covering her nose with her hand. “There might be some people three floors away who missed your arrival.”

“Well, I had better go inform them,” he responded cheerfully.

Mina reached up to touch his face and felt him do the same to her. They both wore a mix of inherited and fashion jewelry: Mina wore three thin rings in each eyebrow, along with etched silver plates, formerly their mother’s, that adhered along her cheekbones. Felix’s cheekbones were accented with a lattice of brushed metal (borrowed from Father) and he’d decorated his beard with strings of tinny bells.

“Oh, Felix, not your eyebrows, too,” she sighed. His brow piercings, all ten of them, also jingled with bells.

“I’m told Watson Carr himself wears them!”

“Well, he’s a pop star – he can pull them off, can’t he?”

She felt him draw himself up in not-entirely-feigned indignation. “Just what are you trying to say?”

“Never mind. Did you hear Captain Wu is here?”

“That pilot? I thought he was off in the Gobi desert doing something insane like breaking land speed records.”

“He was, and he did, and now Tess is ready for her introduction.” Mina squeezed her sister’s arm; Tess tried to say “yes,” but it came out in a nervous whisper.

She felt Felix take her other arm. “Shall we, then?”

He set them on their way through the crowd of pinging guide suits and clouds of perfume. Mina picked up Mrs. Rosmund’s aggressively spiced scent and Mr. Theron’s notes of subdued leather. Mr. Theron was also arguing loudly with two others about the benefits of the latest echolocating gadgets, apparently intended to interface directly with the brain. Mr. Theron was opposed; his citrus- and tobacco-scented companions were in favor. Mina got the impression one of them was a neuroscientist of some sort before their argument was lost amid party conversations and chiming suits.

“You know, I could’ve been a pilot,” Felix said. “My hearing’s excellent and I ranked in the top percentile for reflexes.”

“Top what percentile?” Mina said with a laugh.

“Thirtieth,” he muttered. “Besides, with the all recent advancements in echolocating, those things practically fly themselves.”

“Do you think Alaric remembers me?” Tess interrupted, squeezing Mina’s hand. “We were in such different circles at school –”

“Regardless, he’s sure to be impressed by you now.”

“Wait, what do you mean, regardless?”

Felix hushed them. “We’re close.”

From a few feet ahead of them came a chorus of chimes and violin notes: they were approaching their hostess, Mrs. Ashcliffe, and her no doubt eminent friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe’s perfume greeted them, carrying notes of ambergris and sandalwood – all genuine, not artificial, of course. Mina heard Tess’ breath turn quick and shallow and gave her arm another reassuring squeeze.

Felix, as usual, was unfazed. “Mrs. Ashcliffe. Spectacular party, thank you so much for including us.”

“Felix.” Mrs. Ashcliffe’s age-worn baritone was warm. “And your sisters, I assume.”

Mina felt the old woman’s hands on her face and shyly returned the greeting: Mrs. Ashcliffe’s cheekbones were decorated with intricate cloisonné plates and her forehead was draped in a net of tiny bells. Their elegance made Mina self-conscious even of her own fine jewelry.

Their hostess soon pronounced them all “lovely” and stood back in a wave of silvery suit chimes. “Have you had a chance to meet Lizbet Freeman? She’s composing the most lovely soundscapes.”

“Actually, we were hoping to meet Captain Wu,” Felix said. “Tess went to school with him.”

“I don’t want to take up his time,” Tess added breathlessly. “I know he’s very busy–“

“Oh, I’d be delighted to introduce you. John, go and fetch Alaric, would you?”

Mrs. Ashcliffe plied Tess for anecdotes about the captain’s school days. Mina listened with pride as her sister’s posture relaxed and her voice grew more confident.  A new, woodsy scent soon arrived accompanied by proximity chimes.

“Tess, Mina, Felix,” Mrs. Ashcliffe announced, “may I introduce – or perhaps reintroduce – Captain Alaric Wu.”

The usual greetings were exchanged. Mina heard Tess gasp, and soon found out why: Wu was not wearing any jewelry, so her hands met his bare, and appealingly sculpted, face.

“Tess has been telling everyone what you were like at Gildeheath,” Mina said.

“Wait, Tess Sherborne?” Mina was relieved to hear delight in his voice. “From the Recitation Club?”

“You remember me?”

And just like that, the captain and Tess were chatting like old friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe excused herself; Mina felt Felix try to direct them towards Tess and the captain, but she held her ground.

“I want to meet him, too,” Felix hissed.

“Not now,” she hissed back.

“I’ve done some flying in my time, surely he’d be interested–”

“Later. Let them talk.”

“Oh. Oh.”

“God, you’re dense.”

And together they melted back into the swirl of chimes and perfume.

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The Wind-Up Murder

It’s just past sunset when Anusha and I are called down to the Scuttles. We make our landing approach slowly, red and blue lights spinning. A few people look up; some make rude gestures. Most ignore us. The sleepas want their next fix; the workers just want to get home.

The car doors open and we’re greeted by a rising tide of odor: fuel, frying food, sweat, and the sweet breath of crank. It’s almost relaxing, especially compared to when Krimson was still on the streets and a bitter scent foretold violence.

Colin waves us past the blinking “caution” barrier. “Victim is male, 24,” he says. “The perp, the victim’s brother, emptied a clip into him, then started screaming for help.”

Anusha frowns. “He didn’t run?”

“He was still there screaming when we arrived. Only reason he stopped is because he blew his voice out.”

The apartment doors open and two cops emerge, hauling a struggling figure between them. The perpetrator is around thirty, with the pallor of someone on a computer too much. The distinct aroma of crank accompanies him. As they pass, he reaches toward me with bloody hands. “Wind it up,” he gasps, staring vacantly. “Wind it up.”

Anusha wrinkles her nose. “Pia, you take me to all the nicest places.”

“You get drug-fueled murders in Pearltower, too.” I lead the way inside. “Usually not because of crank, though.”

Inside, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. The walls are covered in antiques: clocks, fading photographs, travel posters. The gentle tick of the multitude of clocks is soothing, like listening to rain.

Wind it up, I think. But there are dozens of clocks here, and as far as I can tell, they’re all working. I squeeze past one of the evidence techs as they scan blood splashes in the perpetrator’s office. The walls are half high-tech, half museum, with computer towers and monitors crowding two walls and the others loaded with clocks. I study them, but none of these need winding, either. If the room wasn’t full of people talking and scanning, the soothing ticking would envelop the space.

“Why does a sleepa tech geek have a bunch of old junk?” Anusha asks, tapping the glass on one of the clocks.

“Why did a sleepa tech geek shoot his brother repeatedly, then call for help?”

The victim’s body lies surrounded by shards of glass and shattered wood; he’d staggered back into some clocks, destroying them.

“Here.” Anusha kneels and waves a hand over a tagged twist-ignition pipe. At her gesture, a display blooms from the tag, confirming the presence of crank and the perpetrator’s DNA. “What kind of crank causes rage?”

“No kind.” I circle the room. The ticking clocks are spotless; he must dust them every time he winds them. I scan them, but there’s no trace of hidden tech. The biggest clock hangs over the desk. It has three hefty weights that would need winding daily – and mounted behind the weights is a camera.

“Hey!” I wave the techs over. “Got a hidden camera. Probably recorded the murder.”

I make way for the techs as they crowd around, scanners flashing. Almost immediately they turn back, looking disappointed.

“It’s not real,” one of them says. “Lots of Scuttles residents put up fakes to deter thieves.”

“What now?” Anusha asks.

I study the room. My gaze lands on the tagged pipe. It’s self-igniting, but requires a twisting motion – like winding a clock.

I pluck the pipe from the floor and twist.

“Pia! What are you doing?”

I smell the crank start burning inside the pipe, but I catch the scent of something else – something bitter.

“Do you smell that?”

She kneels beside me and breathes. “No way. Krimson?”

“Masks,” I order, but even one breath has had an effect: Anusha’s proximity is suddenly infuriating, and the racket from these goddamn clocks –

A mask seals over my face. Techs pin my arms to my sides; one of them has put the mask on me. We’re in the hallway. Anusha is nearby, similarly restrained, bleeding from her hairline.

“You’re bleeding,” I say.

“Yeah. You hit me with a keyboard.”

“Sorry.”

Seeing we’ve recovered, the techs release us. A squad of masked cleaners rushes past to secure the drugs.

Anusha presses gauze to her forehead. “So who hated that guy enough to dose him with Krimson?”

I think about the man’s bloody hands: there were really two victims here tonight. “We’d better get to work.”

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

I’ll Be All Right Tomorrow

Karya had been on Mars for two entire years, which called for a party. Someone pilfered vodka and some orange space drink from the employee dorm’s pantry; together, they made an acceptable cocktail. Karya sat apart, though, drinking slowly.

“That’s still your first, innit?” Col plopped down next to her.  “S’matter, too powdery?”

“It’s fine.” Karya fidgeted with the foam cup, slicing tally marks with her thumbnail. “They offered me a promotion today: executive assistant. I might take it.”

“Assistant to whom?”

“Does it matter? It means higher security clearance, access to more files – ”

“It means being stuck in the offices,” he interrupted, “away from the mines. How are you supposed to find him if you can’t get out there and look for him?”

“I’ve been out there! Two years in that godawful suit!”

“Us, too, remember?” His eyes flashed. “And we’re gettin’ no promotions.”

She rubbed her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Col produced a flask and splashed its contents into her cup, pressing a finger to his lips.

“That’ll help it. To your brother, eh?”

“To Marko.” She tapped her cup to his and downed its improved – and amplified – contents just as the dorm intercom whined.

“Karya Novak, please report to your supervisor.”

She stood, sighing. “At this hour?”

“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

Her heart raced as she navigated the deserted corridors towards the administrative wing. Surely their small party hadn’t caused any disruptions. Did they want her decision already?

What if they’d they caught Col or Maria or someone prying into her brother’s disappearance? What if she’d gotten her friends in trouble?

What if they’d caught Karya sneaking into the security archives, or observed how she spent every single Surface Day ignoring the rusty, blasted landscape, but taking photos of as many miners as possible, desperate to capture her brother’s face in the crowd?

She took several deep breaths. She didn’t even know for sure that anything bad had happened to Marko. For all she knew, he was just one of the thousands of miners serving out his lifelong contract deep in the claustrophobic Martian tunnels, and there were so many of them she simply hadn’t seen him yet.

Or, for all she knew, he was dead, or transferred to Europa, or –

The office door loomed before her. The security camera, recognizing her, whirred the door open. A young man sat in front of Mrs. Kim’s desk, his dark hair closely shaved, his prominent brow furrowed, his sad, dark eyes –

“Marko?” she gasped.

He stood, half-smiling, and opened his arms to her. One now ended at the elbow. “Hey, Karya.”

“How – oh God, Marko – ”

“Looks worse than it feels,” he assured her. “I got badly burned by gas a while back, so they moved me to engineering.”

“You always were good with electronics,” she cried into his jumpsuited shoulder. “You oaf, I’ve been looking for you for months!”

“I know. I didn’t want this to worry you more.”

She pulled back, her tears stilled. “You knew I was here?”

“Saw you at a couple Surface Days.”

“And you never said? Never contacted me?”

Mrs. Kim strode in, the door whirring shut behind her. “Sorry I’m late.” She stopped at the sight of Karya’s tear-striped face. “He told you already?”

“Told her what?”

Mrs. Kim sat down behind the desk. “My mistake. When was the last time either of you heard from your mother?”

Marko shifted uncomfortably.

“She messages me monthly,” Karya said, “when the channels are clear. Why?”

Mrs. Kim leaned forward. “Your father passed away a week ago. He had an aggressive cancer. Your mother never mentioned he was sick?”

“No,” Karya choked out. “When was he…”

“According to the statement from his doctor, he was diagnosed a little over a year and a half ago.”

Karya stared at her knees. She hadn’t had a claustrophobic attack in months, but this felt similarly horrible – her lungs constricting, her heart rampaging –

“Mom wouldn’t have wanted you to worry.” Marko’s voice intruded on her grief. “She knows how hard it is to get back to Earth.”

“She knows I was looking for you,” she spat. She stood, tears and the shitty cocktail and shock making her stagger. “And if you hadn’t been hiding from me –”

“You’re blaming me?”

Karya closed her eyes, counted, opened them. They were dry. “Maybe I am. Oh, and Mrs. Kim – I quit.”

She stalked from the office. The next Earth-bound shuttle left in seven rotations, and she needed to pack.

Surface Day

It was Surface Day and Karya was staring at the Martian sky.

Once a month, when the conditions were good, everyone – miners and caff fillers, foremen and scientists – was allowed to spend time on the surface. Rovers transported groups to geological formations, astronomers gave seminars, and cameras were made available for people to document the day. If an employee’s photo was chosen for company marketing materials, they’d receive a nice bonus.

Karya took nearly 300 pictures each Surface Day, mostly of the red-suited miners themselves. She wasn’t motivated by the potential bonus (though of course it would be nice): she simply needed to record as many faces as she could whenever she had the chance.

When she wasn’t taking pictures, Karya stared at the sky, drinking in the openness and the shades of gray and gold. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but its beauty was in its expansiveness. It reminded Karya of the only time she’d gone swimming, when her family won a vacation to a tropical island. She was nine; Marko was twelve. It was the first time she’d ever left the station where she was born, the first time she saw the sky from below, and the first time she’d been able to fully submerge herself in water. Her dad didn’t want them swimming alone, but Karya went anyway, plunging into the clear depths until they were no longer clear, until her lungs ached, then stung.

She kicked until everything burned and the water turned clear again and she was out, bursting free, filling her small strained lungs with pure life, blinking at the sunshine and the clarity of sand grains and palms and the subtle variegation in that blue, blue sky.

Karya had been holding her recycled breath for weeks now, waiting for the day the lift went up instead of down. Now she could exhale and breathe in sunlight, and horizons, and mountains. It almost made her smile.

But they’d sounded the five minute warning, a piercing electronic tone delivered to her earpiece, and Karya still had pictures to take. She drew her eyes down, raised the camera to her faceplate, and shot.

Every photo taken was made available on the mine’s ‘net, so after each Surface Day, she used her free time to scan through hundreds and hundreds of photos, squinting through the miners’ face masks in hopes of finally seeing her brother.

Marko had left home at eighteen, but his record – a single incident of vandalism – condemned him to the life of a miner on any of a dozen ore-rich worlds. Karya counted it a blessing that he was still in the solar system – or had been, anyway. Since she’d lost contact with him a year and a half ago, she had no way of knowing he was even still on Mars. The mine didn’t bother with accurate record-keeping as long as the quotas were met, and if a miner or two or forty died in a superheated gas leak or a collapsed tunnel, there were hundreds more willing to take their place.

She had no evidence that Marko was dead, thankfully, but she had no evidence he was still alive, either. Thousands of photos across eight Surface Days had revealed nothing. She was running out of places to look.

Karya turned her camera on Col and Maria, who were photographing their team with their own camera. Like her, they took many photos of the miners as part of their pledge to help her find Marko. They shared her suspicions of foul play, but she’d also bribed them with additional caff fills. The extra caffeine wasn’t physically harmful, but providing and accepting more than the allotted amount put all their jobs at risk. Col, who’d been assigned miner due to anarchist activity, had jumped at the opportunity to play whistle-blower, caffeinated or not. Maria and many of the others, having had friends who were suddenly “promoted” and never heard from again, wanted answers of their own, no matter how dangerous the questions were.

That had been three months ago. They’d found nothing, and between the secret caff refills and their risky investigation, Karya thought they were all lucky to still be employed, let alone not imprisoned.

The electronic tone signaling the end of Surface Day sounded. Maria elbowed her as they trudged towards the lifts.

“Any good shots?”

“Hope so. You?”

“We’ll see, huh?” They crowded into the lift. “Anyway, there’s always next month.”

Karya nodded and took one last photo of the hazy Martian sky.

Save

Caff Girl

Karya clocked in five minutes before the start of twelfth rotation and caught the next lift down into the mines. It stopped two levels down at the substation, where she hopped into her pressure suit, loaded a caff tank onto her back, and checked the tunnel conditions. It was a good day – no gas leaks, volcanic activity, or equipment malfunctions – so she reboarded the lift and headed deeper down.

Even with the pressure suit on, Karya thought she could still feel her ears needing to pop. She opened and closed her jaw, but, as usual, nothing happened. When she started this job over a year ago, she needed anxiety meds, something that took her mind off the claustrophobic suit and the crushing depths and the ever-present threat of erupting volcanoes. Even going “home” to the employee dorms couldn’t soothe her – those were also underground, sheltered from the brutal Martian surface. Karya was born on a geostationary satellite complex positioned over the Atlantic, but somehow the vacuum of space and all its associated horrors never scared her as badly as this mining operation.

She needed this job, though, so she adjusted. It had been three months since she’d needed the meds. Most of the other caff girls who were hired along with Karya had been promoted or left, but Karya stayed.

The high-pitched whine of the speeding lift became a low hum, then disappeared. The lift doors opened and Karya emerged at the dim, sweltering bottom of the mine.

She’d seen old photographs in her Earth history textbooks depicting miners in the ancient coal mines. They were dressed in sturdy work clothes and heavy helmets, their exposed faces indistinguishable under thick dirt and coal dust. The miners of Mars were also difficult to tell apart thanks to their bulky, red-dusted protective suits. It had made finding Marko even harder than she’d expected.

The first group of miners shut off their laser picks as she approached. Karya felt a familiar surge of anticipation – maybe this time – but she recognized their faces as they turned towards her, all of them heaving audible sighs of relief while her own hopes trickled away.

“Frackin’ finally.”

She forced a smile onto her face. “Hey, Col.”

Col was a shift captain, one of several miners Karya knew by name. He looked overworked at only half past noon, and judging by the sheen of sweat under his helmet and the unintelligible grunt that accompanied his outthrust glove, it had been a long morning indeed. She clipped the caff dispenser spigot to the valve on his glove, pumping his afternoon dose of cool, refreshing caffeinated air into his suit.

“Better?” she asked while she refilled Maria.

Col raised one stubby finger while he inhaled slowly. He grinned and held out his wrist for more.

Karya hesitated. Giving a worker a second fill-up in the same shift was grounds for having her wages docked – if she was caught. The entire mine was watched by security cameras, but only some of the cameras were monitored some of the time. She suspected she was one of few who knew this, considering she’d found out by sneaking into the company archives to try to find proof her brother was here. On weeks when the budget was tight, the company simply shut off cameras, saving power but sacrificing safety and accountability. Whole days were missing from the archives. Some of those corresponded to low-earning weeks, but others occurred ominously close to what the company had labeled mass layoffs, promotions, or retirements.

Those, in turn, corresponded with periods of high volcanic activity below the mines.

Karya had last heard from her brother fifteen months ago, but they were lousy correspondents even when channels weren’t disrupted by outages, radiation, or hackers. Marko could have been missing for two months, or fifteen, or none, but until Karya found proof in the records, or came across him among the hordes of miners she refilled twice a day, she refused to leave Mars.

She turned back to Col. “You want caff refills?”

“Hell, yeah!”

“You want them on the regular?”

He glanced at the cameras. “You need help finding someone?”

“How did you know?”

“Nobody stays a caff girl for as long as you unless they’re looking for someone,” he said with such gentleness it nearly made her cry. “Who is it? Boyfriend? Sibling?”

She clipped on the spigot again. “Brother. Marko. Can you help me?”

He breathed deeply and grinned. “Let me do some digging.”

Links Lundi

Spring weather approaches (at least in this part of the country), and with it, the first stirrings of clothing-related modesty lectures aimed at women. As usual, I have strong opinions about this issue, but I really like what this article had to say about it: “You might see some cleavage and have a sexual thought. You might also see a woman tying her shoe and have a sexual thought…That battle happens within your mind and it is your responsibility.”

A new mom’s anxiety over baby clothes teaches larger lessons: “Femininity is not less than masculinity. It is a different kind of strength, but it is powerful and wonderful and deserves our respect.

How often does modern Doctor Who pass the Bechdel Test? (A note on the Bechdel Test. Passing doesn’t necessarily mean a movie is a good representation of women – it only means the creators took the time to come up with more than one female character and put them in a conversation together. Which shouldn’t be difficult, and yet alarmingly few movies pass. Conversely, a movie can have multiple well-written female characters, but if they never talk to each other, that movie will fail the test – like Avengers, or How To Train Your Dragon 2 [see my thoughts below].)

A new anthology uses science fiction to reimagine justice. It never even occurred to me to wonder what we could do besides prisons, so I’m looking forward to reading this.

We finally saw “How To Train Your Dragon 2” and since I’d already read this article, I was prepared to be disappointed by the character of Hiccup’s mother. I do believe Valka was grossly neglected for the movie’s final act, but I agree more with this article in that overall, HTTYD2 does an awesome job challenging gender-based tropes. What do you think?