Hammer and Tongs and a Rusty Nail

For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. When a mysterious stranger approaches Wally Gunderson, a.k.a Rustbelt, about running for Jokertown City Council, he doesn’t think twice about it. His first move? Hiring an unlikely campaign manager – Mordecai Albert Jones, the Harlem Hammer. Together they’ll discover the ins and outs of local politics, and whether conspiracy theorist Sparkjob is actually crazy… or just on to something?     “Call Darcy.” The voice was faint but crystal clear, in exactly the way Mordecai Albert Jones sometimes imagined would presage the creeping onset of dementia. He paused in dismantling an Imperial LeBaron land yacht, straining to listen past the fading shriek of torn metal. But the scrap yard was quiet; he heard only the thrum of a chill spring wind and clinking of chains somewhere nearby. With a shrug, he tore the junker’s hood down the middle like a piece of tissue paper, extracting the mercury switch from the trunk light. It was getting difficult to find spare mercury just lying around these days. Many of the heavy metals, really. Either they were valuable, and people stole them—like the...
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No Period

A man sets out to tell a story of his ex, which in turns becomes a story of the world. If only he could change that story—find the moment where it all began and alter the past. But what if he can’t find the beginning—or even the end?     Buy it Now isn’t the way I meant to tell this story (and, as a matter of fact, I don’t think this is exactly the story I intended to tell), but there you are—life is like that sometimes, when something perfectly clear to everybody else is perfectly opaque to you, so for instance after a bad breakup you’re crazy for a couple of years and all your friends can see it plain as global warming but to you the world seems to grow a knife-edged, brutal clarity it never had before, which makes you go out and do stupid things you think are smart:  for instance when your new squeeze picks up a book you know you also want you go and buy your own copy and she thinks you don’t love her because aren’t the two of you a unit and don’t you have things together but in fact that’s...
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On Safari in R’lyeh and Carcosa with Gun and Camera

An academic’s whimsical decision to take a DNA test leads her into uncharted territory, where she discovers some extraordinary truths about herself and new possibilities for her future.     “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you’d flunked Algebra, Griswold,” Roberts said, racking another shell into his hunting rifle and peering over our flimsy barricade. He was trying to see if the monstrous creatures beyond were preparing for another assault. I was too busy reloading my 10-gauge to answer, even if I’d wanted to dignify his assertion. Algebra wasn’t the issue here. Scientific curiosity was. And perhaps having had too much time on my hands. I had to grant him that this was in every respect my fault. It was only his imprecision of language when it came to apportioning blame that griped me. And if I were being fair, that was probably me engaging in diversion, or sophistry, or whatever the technical psychological term for nitpicking the hell out of something to weasel out of it is. Whatever: I’d been the one who sent in my spit sample to the online DNA testing folks, and I’d been the one who’d gotten curious about a weird little line item in...
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Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law

No vampire is ever innocent… The wandering Judge Dee serves as judge, jury, and executioner for any vampire who breaks the laws designed to safeguard their kind’s survival. This new case in particular puts his mandate to the test.     1. The sun had long set over the distant mountains, and the night world was still but for the two small figures trudging silently under the moonlight. One was tall and thin and moved with a precise energy. The other, smaller, kept hurrying to catch up behind. They wended their path over a dirt road threaded through the fields, earth beaten down under the tread of farmers’ feet. ‘There is a village up ahead, master,’ the smaller figure said. ‘If you are in need of feeding.’ The taller one said, ‘One must feed out of necessity, not greed, Jonathan.’ ‘Of course, master.’ Jonathan peered ahead. He was grateful for the moon, for without its light he would find it hard to see, unlike his master. Too often in the moonless nights of their passage he tripped and stumbled and, once, would have fallen into a ravine had not his master interceded. ‘A lesson lost on many of the young ones.’...
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City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat

In this spell-binding tale, a Pakistani storyteller captivates a group of wide-eyed tourists with a nesting doll of interlocked stories about a trickster and a hidden city ruled by the Queen of Red Midnight.     1: FROM THE LIPS OF BABA KAHANI   Hatim took them to the chai-khana on Main Boulevard partly because they were jet-lagged and wanted to kill time, mostly because it had been years since he had visited and he wanted to see Alif Laila, the Book Bus, again. No such luck. The tiny park near Main Market where the double-decker used to stand was empty. Hatim was inclined to discount the donkey standing in knee-high grass gazing at the dusk. They tell you many things, but they don’t tell you absence makes the heart grow older. Ghostly. As if one of your what-might-have-been lives just evaporated. They bought badly needed travel accessories and retired to Tandoori Teahouse, a makeshift establishment in the parking lot of a building. Beneath a white canopy two chefs in shalwar kameez cooked chai in boiling clay pots and poured it into tin cups—the first sip a crackling, rich, earthy shock that jolted them awake. “Ho-ly shit, Hatim,” Maurice said. “Imma...
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The Mystical Art of Codeswitching

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     Omar lounged on his sectional, his face and body lit only by the blue glow of his phone’s screen, and pressed the Home icon in the app. He scrolled up to read the latest messages on his feed. Hunger gnawed at him, but he couldn’t drum up the energy to walk to the kitchen, let alone find and cook something to eat. For now, he pressed the Home icon again. No new notifications. He shifted to the What’s Trending tab and absorbed the chaos. @CNN: BREAKING: Protests nationwide continue after 15-year-old Aaron Davis was killed in an officer-involved shooting on Detroit’s west side. Reply to @CNN: Jazmine Jefferson-Hughes was killed two days before and there’s nothing but crickets. The misogynoir at these legacy media orgs is enough to make me want to [redacted]. Omar scrolled down his feed to another thread. @BLM_IN: We’re organizing another...
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teatime

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     “A boy followed me home today. Crawled on his hands and knees. He was bloody and torn by the time I got the key in the lock. Poor thing.” She says all this in one breath as I drop one cube of sugar in her tea. My hands are shaking by the time I pour my own cup. “What did you do with him?” “Well, cleaned him up, of course. Set him down at the kitchen table and bandaged his wounds. Funniest thing, though, once I finished, he went back to all fours on my nice floors. I struck him once, but he refused to move so I left him there.” I gulp at my tea. Too strong. I let it seep too long. Surely, she’ll say something. I’m tempted to do away with the whole thing, but as usual, I swallow the moment down...
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We Come as Gods

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     First, we come as servants. Who we were before this is not important: not the wars we may have fought in or ran from; not the academies we may have attended or not; not if we were once master or slave. All that matters, in the beginning, is that we are a people’s people, that we may stand in the midst of a crowd and be indistinguishable. On our heads lie the same hair as theirs, and on our feet the same sandals. We are simply one and the same, isn’t it obvious? Next, we come as heroes. Shining armour, arms unafraid to swing, tools of mass destruction that fit in the palm of our hands. We invoke the gods of our people, and they descend and stand beside us. The people see their hands outstretched upon our shoulders, their eyes shut in blessing. Godly...
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Here Sits His Ignominy

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     To the king across the Blue Sea, in his Hall of Stone.   Your Insufferable Majesty, I know this letter did not find you well—it being in the excavated abdomen of your emissary. You should know that disembowelment is a savage punishment Great Nubia abandoned 600 years ago, but one we thought to revisit to best illustrate our point. Your governor-generals are dead. The insolent lot lie now in their various estates and keeps with bellies yawning open and brimming with ungodly humor—a state not dissimilar to that of the emissary sprawled on the impeccable floor of your throne room. I imagine you find this knowledge worrisome. Are you incensed, your majesty? Do you tremble with rage? Do you feel the urge to unleash your righteous army upon us “godless heathens”? Good. Very good. But first, a lesson in what these heathens can do. Look...
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The Friendship Bench

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     The young woman is driven to my Healing Hut by a question. She doesn’t need to ask it. Everyone who seeks out my services comes here as a last resort. As soon as she closes the door, the floor beneath her sneakers morphs into a meadow. She inhales sharply, realizing that she now stands in grassland awash in the afternoon’s yellow glow. She turns back frightened, looking for the door she entered through but finds nothing. I wave at her from the bench under the shade of a jacaranda tree. The purple jacaranda petals occasionally fall onto my greying afro. The Friendship Bench looks like any other classic park bench yet the girl hesitates to join me. I wave and smile. It does the trick to remind her that I look like I could be anyone’s grandmother. Good. She’ll bring me closer to my quota....
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The Front Line

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     My ass sticks to the thick, hot plastic seat of a waiting room chair that is unable to accommodate the spread of my hips. The AC groans with effort. It’s 68 degrees in here, but my body runs hot. I squirm in discomfort, inadvertently pushing my shorts up my crotch. My thighs pop out like sausages heated to bursting. Thick with sweat, their dimpled roundness lays bare for the judgmental stares of those seated around me. Leaning to my side, I lift a butt check and ungracefully dig the shorts out of my crack. It takes longer than it should. I glance around nervously, but no one’s looking. I’m just another big girl whose body has become armor.   ***   “You weren’t wearing panties,” the officer replies impassively. I don’t sleep in underwear, so I don’t answer, but the unspoken accusation hangs in the...
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Conjurer’s Rites

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     I should know how to spell a Graves family gathering by now. “Once . . . th-there was . . .” I pause, chewing my heartbeat. Fashionable relatives, peppered throughout the Hilton’s stately ballroom, stare on. Unimpressed. Skeptical. “Once,” I repeat, louder, “there was a housekeeper who—” “I’on see nothing!” someone shouts. “Hush.” “But he’s right, though.” Uncles murmur into bulbous snifters; cousins snicker behind their phones. Dry-mouthed, I squint into the searing spotlight overhead, grimacing around microphone feedback. “Once, there was a housekeeper with legendary hands.” Sticking mine out, I curl brown fingers into the staid, hotel air; gaze across attendees at the thirty-third Graves Family Reunion; and conjure a memory spell unique to our bloodline. “This housekeeper,” I continue, fingers tingling, “was our very own Betty Graves, Great-great-Granny to most of us. As you can see…” Yet, fear-stricken, I realize nothing’s happening. The...
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Sela, Thief

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today. The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.     Sela held her power tight, cranked up her headset, and sauntered into the corner market. She needed fixins for a relaxing night in her new apartment. She’d skip unpacking tonight, just curl up with a bottle of wine instead. Some cheese. Salami. Maybe some fancy damn crackers. Anything to erase her day on campus. The student who moaned “That Black Bitch failed him,” though his work was always late. The security guard who tried ejecting her from her own office as she ate lunch at her own desk. The greybeard provost who poo-pooed such minor complaints while students staged walkouts and die-ins. Maybe she’d get lucky. Maybe the little shop would have pita chips. Burrata. Prosciutto. She brushed past the cashier, a portly man placing crackers and cookies above the counter. Black hair and skin dark enough to be a foreigner, light enough to be...
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Placed into Abyss (Mise en Abyse)

Chris would rather be anywhere but here, cleaning out his deceased, hateful grandparents’ house with his relatives. Each room he visits takes him back in time to another traumatic memory. To escape this house and his grandparents and his past, he’ll need to take time travel into his own hands. Content warning for fictional depictions of verbal, physical, and sexual child abuse.     There was supposed to be a cameo somewhere in Birdie’s bedroom, but no one could find it. They’d gone through all the jewelry and keepsakes. All they’d found was her sapphire ring, loose in a cookie tin, along with a bundle of sepia photographs showing people crowded around the hotel that Birdie’s family had owned when she was a child during the Great Depression. Lily and Harold argued over the identities of the people in the pictures, but came to no consensus. The cameo was a Civil War heirloom. Birdie had made a point of mentioning it whenever she talked to her children and grandchildren about their eventual inheritance. Marian frowned at the empty closet. Could it have accidentally gotten packed with Dad’s suits in the bags for Goodwill? Her twin, Lily, whipped toward her with an...
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The Ashes of Around Twenty-Three Strangers

The world doesn’t make sense. All rain has moved indoors, wrecking houses from the inside out while the skies remain cloudless. With ever greater devotion, people worship giant, inert, humanoid bodies as gods as civilization falls apart. Lucy, who has never been religious, has no way to properly mourn her brother after his untimely death. Now, a year later, she will travel south on a makeshift pilgrimage with the help of her best friend Carve, who was once himself a believer, trying to find peace and some better means of understanding the world.     At breakfast, Lucy decides she is ready to bury the ashes at the base of the god. “I think I have enough now,” she tells Carve. “Godspeed,” Carve says. He sits across from her, nose wrinkled at the substitute eggs. The silver contours of his wheelchair shine bright beneath the kitchen’s bare forty-watt bulb. “I need you to come,” Lucy says. “You know I can’t drive your car.” It had been modified, on account of Carve’s legs.  He lost them before the world fell apart, in an accident with a city bus. The settlement money had paid for this house, the car. These days it does...
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The Perfection of Theresa Watkins

Justin C. Key’s “The Perfection of Theresa Watkins” is a skillful speculative exploration of the intersection of race, mental illness, and the American prison system. Darius and Theresa Watkins confronted death once as fellow cancer survivors. Their lives are full and productive, their love a shield against Darius’s bouts of anxiety and Theresa’s occasional flare-ups. Yet when tragedy strikes, Darius will try everything to save his wife…even against his fears that she may have transformed into an entirely different person—literally.     Perfect. Everything had to be perfect. The living room couch’s relation to our centrally framed wedding picture. The entertainment center’s arrangement of rimmed diplomas, captured memories, and diverse snow globes. The half-filled kitchen trashcan, scant dishes in the sink, and a bathroom between cleanings made for a homely smell, one that said we did when we “could,” and that “could” came less often than we’d liked. If things weren’t perfect, I’d lose her again. The water I poured to ease down the Xanax sloshed out of the cup, onto the counter, and dribbled cold onto my socks. I hated medication, but Resurrection, Inc. advised against the electronic limbic treatments that usually eliminated my attacks all together. They’d prescribed me...
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Solution

As climate change wreaks havoc on the earth and the fate of humanity grows dire, a scientist makes a plan to save humanity that would shame the devil.     I. When I was a child, there were kelp forests that stretched for miles, a whole underwater world to get lost in. By the time I was older and had children of my own, these were gone, a vast array of undersea creatures snatched away along with them. All of it vanished almost before anyone paid heed. Or rather, no, some did, but only a few, and by the time more did it was too late: the remaining members of each species were not numerous enough to propagate. The last few were tagged and tracked and then, when they died, stuffed and preserved. Now I am very old. My hands are liver spotted, palsied. My sons left me decades ago to pursue their own lives. My wife acquired a cancer, one of the less friendly ones, and quickly spun her way off this mortal coil. Now every kind of forest is nearly gone, not just those underwater. Without trees, the remaining air is slowly turning toxic. This is the world we...
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Hearts in the Hard Ground

Following the death of her mother, Fiona buys a new house in order to start a new chapter of her life, one with fewer reminders of painful memories. Unbeknownst to Fiona, this house has a melancholy history, and slightly more ghosts than she anticipated. In learning to live with her unexpected companions and their losses, Fiona might find a way to make peace with her own.     I bought a slim Edwardian terrace with the money Mum left me. It declared itself a house of dead things right away. Old houses can’t help doing that. The years accumulate inside them, dense as tree rings. On move-in day, I found a stain darkening the floorboards of the master bedroom — grim expulsions that had soaked through the carpet and underlay — while, downstairs, the handyman extracted a rotting seagull from the flue. I buried the sad little creature in the frozen soil of my garden. I even made a cross out of two bits of cardboard and marked the date: the second of November. It rose from the grave a day later, flying through the guest bedroom window and landing smack on the floor. I tried driving the gull out but...
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Wait for Night

A day laborer hired to clean up a flooded creek outside of Boulder, Colorado uncovers what could be a valuable find—if it doesn’t kill him first.     It was just a day-labor gig. Really, the only reason I’d signed on was because, for insurance reasons, hiring on meant getting fitted for a brand-new pair of lace-up Red Wing boots. It was new policy that summer. Some punk from a few months before had come back and sued the owners for how his right foot had gotten caught up under the tread of a little ditch witch. He’d argued he was going to have a game foot the rest of his life, and that would impact future employment, happiness, his dreams of being a kicker for the Broncos—everything, to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars. Before anyone else could ease what they considered their least important foot in the way of any of the equipment, it was new boots all around—composite toes, ankle support—and all you had to do to lace those boots on was sign papers that, since your feet were now protected, you and you alone would be legally liable for them. After this story, I’d asked...
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For Every Jack

Humanity has settled space and left Earth to its destruction. Connor and Ines have traveled back to Earth on a preservation project to find the human “jacks” that sacrificed their bodies to prop up the United States’s failing infrastructure. But the jacks hold a secret, one Connor would rather keep hidden than risk the truth being made public.     Connor met Ines first in the shuttle, but they had both been sedated for the drop. He met her properly now in the restored center-city of historic Philadelphia, where the white-painted wood and orange brick of colonial buildings still sparkled with a coat of dead nano from just finished reconstitution. Connor tried to read her from her movement in the liftsuit. She was never still, but it did not seem nervous. Each motion was controlled, testing the limits of the pressure of the exoskeleton, the power of the jets, her own endurance in the unfamiliar gravity. Connor felt awkward in his suit. It was harder to stabilize and drift on the jet boots than in the microgee the suit was meant to mimic, and the pressure of the skeleton on his limbs kept pulling him from his train of thought just...
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