A collection of some of the best original short fiction published on Tor.com in 2014. Includes stories by Charlie Jane Anders, Dale Bailey, Kelly Barnhill, Richard Bowes, Marie Brennan, Adam Christopher, John Chu, A. M. Dellamonica, Ruthanna Emrys, Max Gladstone, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Nicola Griffith, Maria Dahvana Headley, Pasi Ilmari Jaskääläinen, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, Seanan Mcguire, Daniel José Older, Mary Rickert, John Scalzi, Veronica Schanoes, Genevieve Valentine, Jo Walton, Kai Ashante Wilson, Ray Wood, and Isabel Yap.
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About the Author
Some of the Best from Tor.com
Ellen Datlow, Carl Engle-Laird, Liz Gorinsky, David G. Hartwell, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Peter Joseph, Marco Palmieri, Paul Stevens, Ann VanderMeer
Read an Excerpt
Some of the Best from Tor.com
By Ellen Datlow
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Isabel Yap
All rights reserved.
CHARLIE JANE ANDERS
As Good As New
Thanks to Gordon Dahlquist for the advice on theater stuff!
Marisol got into an intense relationship with the people on The Facts of Life, to the point where Tootie and Mrs. Garrett became her imaginary best friends and she shared every last thought with them. She told Tootie about the rash she got from wearing the same bra every day for two years, and she had a long talk with Mrs. Garrett about her regrets that she hadn't said a proper goodbye to her best friend Julie and her on-again/off-again boyfriend Rod, before they died along with everybody else.
The panic room had pretty much every TV show ever made on its massive hard drive, with multiple backup systems and a fail-proof generator, so there was nothing stopping Marisol from marathoning The Facts of Life for sixteen hours a day, starting over again with season one when she got to the end of the bedraggled final season. She also watched Mad Men and The West Wing. The media server had tons of video of live theatre, but Marisol didn't watch that because it made her feel guilty. Not survivor's guilt; failed playwright guilt.
Her last proper conversation with a living human had been an argument with Julie about Marisol's decision to go to medical school instead of trying to write more plays. ("Fuck doctors, man," Julie had spat. "People are going to die no matter what you do. Theatre is important.") Marisol had hung up on Julie and gone back to the pre-med books, staring at the exposed musculature and blood vessels as if they were costume designs for a skeleton theatre troupe.
The quakes always happened at the worst moment, just when Jo or Blair was about to reveal something heartfelt and serious. The whole panic room would shake, throwing Marisol against the padded walls or ceiling over and over again. A reminder that the rest of the world was probably dead. At first, these quakes were constant, then they happened a few times a day. Then once a day, then a few times a week. Then a few times a month. Marisol knew that once a month or two passed without the world going sideways, she would have to go out and investigate. She would have to leave her friends at the Eastland School, and venture into a bleak world.
Sometimes, Marisol thought she had a duty to stay in the panic room, since she was personally keeping the human race alive. But then she thought: what if there was someone else living, and they needed help? Marisol was pre-med, she might be able to do something. What if there was a man, and Marisol could help him repopulate the species?
The panic room had nice blue leather walls and a carpeted floor that felt nice to walk on, and enough gourmet frozen dinners to last Marisol a few lifetimes. She only had the pair of shoes she'd brought in there with her, and it would seem weird to wear shoes after two barefoot years. The real world was in here, in the panic room—out there was nothing but an afterimage of a bad trip.
* * *
Marisol was an award-winning playwright, but that hadn't saved her from the end of the world. She was taking pre-med classes and trying to get a scholarship to med school so she could give cancer screenings to poor women in her native Taos, but that didn't save her either. Nor did the fact that she believed in God every other day.
What actually saved Marisol from the end of the world was the fact that she took a job cleaning Burton Henstridge's mansion to help her through school, and she'd happened to be scrubbing his fancy Japanese toilet when the quakes had started—within easy reach of Burton's state-of-the-art panic room. (She had found the hidden opening mechanism some weeks earlier, while cleaning the porcelain cat figurines.) Burton himself was in Bulgaria scouting a new location for a nano-fabrication facility, and had died instantly.
When Marisol let herself think about all the people she could never talk to again, she got so choked up she wanted to punch someone in the eye until they were blinded for life. She experienced grief in the form of freak-outs that left her unable to breathe or think, and then she popped in another Facts of Life. As she watched, she chewed her nails until she was in danger of gnawing off her fingertips.
* * *
The door to the panic room wouldn't actually open when Marisol finally decided it had been a couple months since the last quake and it was time to go the hell out there. She had to kick the door a few dozen times, until she dislodged enough of the debris blocking it to stagger out into the wasteland. The cold slapped her in the face and extremities, extra bitter after two years at room temperature. Burton's house was gone; the panic room was just a cube half-buried in the ruins, covered in some yellowy insulation that looked like it would burn your fingers.
Everything out there was white, like snow or paper, except powdery and brittle, ashen. She had a Geiger counter from the panic room, which read zero. She couldn't figure out what the hell had happened to the world, for a long time, until it hit her—this was fungus. Some kind of newly made, highly corrosive fungus that had rushed over everything like a tidal wave and consumed every last bit of organic material, then died. It had come in wave after wave, with incredible violence, until it had exhausted the last of its food supply and crushed everything to dust. She gleaned this from the consistency of the crud that had coated every bit of rubble, but also from the putrid sweet-and-sour smell that she could not stop smelling once she noticed it. She kept imagining that she saw the white powder starting to move out of the corner of her eye, advancing toward her, but when she would turn around there was nothing.
"The fungus would have all died out when there was nothing left for it to feed on," Marisol said aloud. "There's no way it could still be active." She tried to pretend some other person, an expert or something, had said that, and thus it was authoritative. The fungus was dead. It couldn't hurt her now.
Because if the fungus wasn't dead, then she was screwed—even if it didn't kill her, it would destroy the panic room and its contents. She hadn't been able to seal it properly behind her without locking herself out.
"Hello?" Marisol kept yelling, out of practice at trying to project her voice. "Anybody there? Anybody?"
She couldn't even make sense of the landscape. It was just blinding white, as far as she could see, with bits of blanched stonework jutting out. No way to discern streets or houses or cars or anything, because it had all been corroded or devoured.
She was about to go back to the panic room and hope it was still untouched, so she could eat another frozen lamb vindaloo and watch season three of Mad Men. And then she spotted something, a dot of color, a long way off in the pale ruins.
The bottle was a deep oaky green, like smoked glass, with a cork in it. And it was about twenty yards away, just sitting in one of the endless piles of white debris. Somehow, it had avoided being consumed or rusted or broken in the endless waves of fungal devastation. It looked as though someone had just put it down a second ago—in fact, Marisol's first response was to yell "Hello?" even louder than before.
When there was no answer, she picked up the bottle. In her hands, it felt bumpy, like an embossed label had been worn away, and there didn't seem to be any liquid inside. She couldn't see its contents, if there were any. She removed the cork.
A whoosh broke the dead silence. A sparkly mist streamed out of the bottle's narrow mouth—sparkling like the cheap glitter at the Arts and Crafts table at summer camp when Marisol was a little girl, misty like a smoke machine at a cheap nightclub—and it slowly resolved into a shape in front of her. A man, a little taller than she was and much bigger.
Marisol was so startled and grateful at no longer being alone that she almost didn't pause to wonder how this man had appeared out of nowhere, after she opened a bottle. A bottle that had survived when everything else was crushed. Then she did start to wonder, but the only explanations seemed too ludicrous to believe.
"Hello and congratulations," the man said in a pleasant tone. He looked Jewish and wore a cheap suit, in a style that reminded Marisol somewhat of the Mad Men episodes she'd just been watching. His dark hair fell onto his high forehead in lank strands, and he had a heavy beard shadow. "Thank you for opening my bottle. I am pleased to offer you three wishes." Then he looked around, and his already dour expression worsened. "Oh, fuck," he said. "Not again."
"Wait," Marisol said. "You're a— You're a genie?"
"I hate that term," the man said. "I prefer wish-facilitator. And for your information, I used to be just a regular person. I was the theater critic at The New York Times for six months in 1958, which I still think defines me much more than my current engagement does. But I tried to bamboozle the wrong individual, so I got stuck in a bottle and forced to grant wishes to anyone who opens it."
"You were a theater critic?" Marisol said. "I'm a playwright. I won a contest and had a play produced off-Broadway. Well, actually, I'm a pre-med student, and I clean houses for money. But in my off-off-hours, I'm a playwright, I guess."
"Oh," the man said. "Well, if you want me to tell you your plays are very good, then that will count as one of your three wishes. And honestly, I don't think you're going to benefit from good publicity very much in the current climate." He gestured around at the bleak white landscape around them. "My name was Richard Wolf, by the way."
"Marisol," she said. "Marisol Guzmán."
"Nice to meet you." He extended his hand, but didn't actually try to shake hers. She wondered if she would go right through him. She was standing in a world of stinky chalk talking to a self-loathing genie. After two years alone in a box, that didn't even seem weird, really.
So this was it. Right? She could fix everything. She could make a wish, and everything would be back the way it was. She could talk to Julie again, and apologize for hanging up on her. She could see Rod, and maybe figure out what they were to each other. She just had to say the words: "I wish." She started to speak, and then something Richard Wolf had said a moment earlier registered in her brain.
"Wait a minute," she said. "What did you mean, 'Not again?'"
"Oh, that." Richard Wolf swatted around his head with big hands, like he was trying to swat nonexistent insects. "I couldn't say. I mean, I can answer any question you want, but that counts as one of your wishes. There are rules."
"Oh," Marisol said. "Well, I don't want to waste a wish on a question. Not when I can figure this out on my own. You said 'not again,' the moment you saw all this. So, this isn't the first time this has happened. Your bottle can probably survive anything. Right? Because it's magic or something."
The dark green bottle still had a heft to it, even after she'd released its contents. She threw it at a nearby rock a few times. Not a scratch.
"So," she said. "The world ends, your bottle doesn't get damaged. If even one person survives, they find your bottle. And the first thing they wish for? Is for the world not to have ended."
Richard Wolf shrugged, but he also sort of nodded at the same time, like he was confirming her hunch. His feet were see-through, she noticed. He was wearing wing-tip shoes, that looked scuffed to the point of being scarred.
"The first time was in 1962," he said. "The Cuban Missile Crisis, they called it afterwards."
"This is not counting as one of my wishes, because I didn't ask a question," Marisol said.
"Fine, fine," Richard Wolf rolled his eyes. "I grew tired of listening to your harangue. When I was reviewing for the Times, I always tore into plays that had too many endless speeches. Your plays don't have a lot of monologues, do they? Fucking Brecht made everybody think three-page speeches were clever. Fucking Brecht."
"I didn't go in for too many monologues," Marisol said. "So. Someone finds your bottle, they wish for the apocalypse not to have happened, and then they probably make a second wish, to try and make sure it doesn't happen again. Except here we are, so it obviously didn't work the last time."
"I could not possibly comment," Richard Wolf said. "Although I should say that everyone gets the wrong idea about people in my line of work—meaning wish-facilitators, not theatre critics. People had the wrong idea when I was a theatre critic, too; they thought it was my job to promote the theatre, to put buns in seats, even for terrible plays. That was not my job at all."
"The theatre has been an endangered species for a long time," Marisol said, not without sympathy. She looked around the pasty-white, yeast-scented deathscape. A world of Wonder Bread. "I mean, I get why people want criticism that is essentially cheerleading, even if that doesn't push anybody to do their best work."
"Well, if you think of theatre as some sort of delicate flower that needs to be kept protected in some sort of hothouse "—and at this point, Wolf was clearly reprising arguments he'd had over and over again, when he was alive—"then you're going to end up with something that only the faithful few will appreciate, and you'll end up worsening the very marginalization that you're seeking to prevent."
Marisol was being very careful to avoid asking anything resembling a question, because she was probably going to need all three of her wishes. "I would guess that the job of a theatre critic is misunderstood in sort of the opposite way than the job of a genie," she said. "Everybody is afraid a theatre critic will be too brutally honest. But a genie ..."
"Everybody thinks I'm out to swindle them!" Richard Wolf threw his hands in the air, thinking of all the tsuris he had endured. "When, in fact, it's always the client who can't express a wish in clear and straightforward terms. They always leave out crucial information. I do my best. It's like stage directions without any stage left or stage right. I interpret as best I can."
"Of course you do," Marisol said. This was all starting to creep her out, and her gratitude at having another person to talk to (who wasn't Mrs. Garrett) was getting driven out by her discomfort at standing in the bleached-white ruins of the world kibitzing about theatre criticism. She picked up the bottle from where it lay undamaged after hitting the rock, and found the cork.
"Wait a minute," Richard Wolf said. "You don't want to—"
He was sucked back inside the bottle before she finished putting the cork back in.
* * *
She reopened the bottle once she was back inside the panic room, with the door sealed from the inside. So nothing or nobody could get in. She watched three episodes of The Facts of Life, trying to get her equilibrium back, before she microwaved some sukiyaki and let Richard Wolf out again. He started the spiel about how he had to give her three wishes over again, then stopped and looked around.
"Huh." He sat and sort of floated an inch above the sofa. "Nice digs. Real calfskin on this sofa. Is this like a bunker?"
"I can't answer any of your questions," Marisol said, "or that counts as a wish you owe me."
"Don't be like that." Richard Wolf ruffled his two-tone lapels. "I'm just trying not to create any loopholes, because once there are loopholes it brings everybody grief in the end. Trust me, you wouldn't want the rules to be messy here." He rifled through the media collection until he found a copy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he made a big show of studying until Marisol finally loaded it for him.
"This is better than I'd remembered," Richard Wolf said an hour later.
"Good to know," Marisol said. "I never got around to watching that one."
"I met Tennessee Williams, you know," Richard said. "He wasn't nearly as drunk as you might have thought."
"So here's what I figure. You do your level best to implement the wishes that people give you, to the letter," Marisol said. "So if someone says they want to make sure that a nuclear war never happens again, you do your best to make a nuclear war impossible. And then maybe that change leads to some other catastrophe, and then the next person tries to make some wishes that prevent that thing from happening again. And on, and on. Until this."
"This is actually the longest conversation I've had since I became a wish-facilitator." Richard crossed his leg, ankle over thigh. "Usually, it's just whomp-bomp-a-lula-three-wishes, and I'm back in the bottle. So tell me about your prize-winning play. If you want. I mean, it's up to you."
Marisol told Richard about her play, which seemed like something an acquaintance of hers had written many lifetimes ago. "It was a one-act," she said, "about a man who is trying to break up with his girlfriend, but every time he's about to dump her she does something to remind him why he used to love her. So he hires a male prostitute to seduce her, instead, so she'll cheat on him and he can have a reason to break up with her."
Richard was giving her a blank expression, as though he couldn't trust himself to show a reaction.
"It's a comedy," Marisol explained.
"Sorry," Richard said. "It sounds awful. He hires a male prostitute to sleep with his girlfriend. It sounds ... I just don't know what to say."
"Well, you were a theatre critic in the 1950s, right? I guess it was a different era."
Excerpted from Some of the Best from Tor.com by Ellen Datlow. Copyright © 2014 Isabel Yap. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Tor Copyright Notice,
Charlie Jane Anders: As Good As New,
Dale Bailey: The End of the End of Everything,
Kelly Barnhill: Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,
Richard Bowes: Sleep Walking Now and Then,
Marie Brennan: Daughter of Necessity,
Adam Christopher: Brisk Money,
John Chu: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade,
A.M. Dellamonica: The Color of Paradox,
Ruthanna Emrys: The Litany of Earth,
Max Gladstone: A Kiss With Teeth,
Kathleen Ann Goonan: A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon a Star,
Nicola Griffith: Cold Wind,
Maria Dahvana Headley: The Tallest Doll in New York City,
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: Where the Trains Turn,
Yoon Ha Lee: Combustion Hour,
Ken Liu: Reborn,
Seanan McGuire: Midway Relics and Dying Breeds,
Daniel José Older: Anyway: Angie,
Mary Rickert: The Mothers of Voorhisville,
John Scalzi: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome,
Veronica Schanoes: Among the Thorns,
Genevieve Valentine: The Insects of Love,
Jo Walton: Sleeper,
Kai Ashante Wilson: The Devil in America,
Ray Wood: In the Sight of Akresa,
Isabel Yap: A Cup of Salt Tears,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I tried to find a decent story in this collection. Unforunately all I could see is junk.
Very good read kept you turning pages to the very end.