We are delighted to share In/To by Bethany Williams, one of four shortlisted stories of The Space Crone Prize for speculative and science short fiction. The special one-off prize, established by Silver Press in collaboration with The Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust, celebrated the publication of Space Crone by Ursula K. Le Guin, a selection of writings edited by So Mayer and Sarah Shin.
The winner and shortlist were announced at Burley Fisher Books’ BFDay23 on Friday 22 September 2023. The winner and shortlist were chosen by a selection panel including Sophia Al Maria, India Downes-Le Guin, So Mayer, Una McCormack, Josie Mitchell, Nisha Ramayya, Sarah Shin, Angelique Tran Van Sang and Isabel Waidner. The winning entries, by Fer Boyd and runner-up E de Zulueta, can be read here.
Iria woke up as a fire, with four figures sitting around her in the dirt.
She felt nothing but air, blaze and panic, could see in all directions with every molecular fragment. If she’d had a larynx she would’ve screamed, but instead she flared and her fear was a tall, pale pink with streaks of lime. It shone well in the dark of the twilight, and illuminated the figures around her.
As she twisted and flailed, things leaned in and out: silhouettes of trees, brush, a starless sky.
‘It’s going mad tonight,’ remarked one of the figures, the smallest. They shuffled back from Iria’s flames on their bum, without taking their bright-masked head off their knees. ‘Pretty.’
‘Maybe it’s trying to communicate,’ said the figure opposite smallest, who had a round torso and see-through frills along the edges of their ovaloid mask, like something aquatic. ‘It’s known us long enough, I suppose.’ Their mask turned from Iria’s pale pink to a deeper rose hue.
A silence as Iria writhed and insects whined, attracted by her light and repelled by her deadly heat. There was no moon but it wasn’t cloudy, no light except Iria’s, no sense of anything beyond the immediate. She was so scared.
Without taking their eyes off the flames, smallest began speaking, in the tone of one who feels they have almost brokered a necessary deal.
‘So, are we guna do it then? I mean, are we agreed? I wouldn’t have suggested it if I didn’t fucking love you all so much.’
‘There’s more than two choices,’ said frilly, quietly. ‘You’re thinking about this too narrowly, I really think.’
Their mask remained pink, but an inkiness began to swirl in its centre. Smallest’s mask went bubbly orange, and they moved on their knees over to the biggest one, who was tall, broad and staring down into Iria with a mask the jet of the sky above. Wrapping their arms and legs around biggest from behind, smallest made a pupupupu sound, gentle, high and soft, and they used their hands to massage biggest’s belly, both palms moving in a circular motion over the faded denim of biggest’s onesie.
‘And I honestly don’t believe you would die,’ they told biggest as they rubbed. ‘Not after all the dreams we’ve all had. Just one brave step and then we’d know for sure. Imagine having options – a sideways that we know about and can talk about and maybe even go to. And you’d’ve brought it us!’
Biggest still didn’t speak.
Across from smallest and biggest, a figure whose mask bulged, cinched and bulged again like a fat hourglass said, ‘Your cruelty’s obvious to all of us. You can stop rubbing them right now. It’s pathetic. You’re just trying to make sure they’re the one to go, because you know we’d all prefer you to try – you’re the one we could stand to lose if we had to.’
Smallest kept rubbing biggest’s belly. ‘Don’t let’s break ourselves apart over this, either. Then we’re done whichever way you count it. I’m not the only one who can’t do this any more. For another day, let alone another bloody however long, millions of days. Chanting, humming, fucking and sleeping. We know we have to know. We know we have to know.
Hourglass said, ‘You go, then.’
No one else spoke, and their masks shifted and swirled in time with Iria’s bright, changing flames. She had calmed down a little and begun to feel herself anew, to explore the pleasant way that bodilessness and infinite form affected the way she was able to move, in curves and flickers.
Pop! The sky was pale now. Or paler.
Only frilly sat by Iria now, and it was they who had turned her back on, using the switch that Iria could see clearly now in pre-gloaming light between the trees. Frilly’s hand still rested gently on it – the white cube that the four used to switch their fire on and off as needed
Behind frilly, through branches and greenery, Iria could just about see the other three, lying up in the branches of a sturdy deciduous. Beyond them, the contours of a church, and beyond that – on all sides, Iria now noticed – ran a high, white stone wall.
She concentrated hard and made every spark she shot out of her buttery gold flames a different colour: bright neon ones, dimmer ones like lavender and lemon, and ones it’s hard for me to name because they’re not colours we have in our world. You’d be dazzled if you saw them. She wanted to connect.
Leaning forward, the figure made a low ‘mmmmm’ sound, in appreciation or desire. Their mask went similar to Iria, as far as they could – multi-coloured sparks teemed, and they needed to tell someone how they felt.
‘Oh, the day never changes, the quality of the fucking light. We hum, we chant, we couple, we sleep. Our masks feed and water us and of them we make beauty. The mornings we spend screaming our names to the sky, over and over til they lose their meaning, and all we have is the beads of sound we are pouring, we are pouring ourselves inside out. Then we stop and lie down on the floor, heads in feet pointing out, and hum our veins into the veins of mud and rock of the earth.
Then, when whatever that light up in the sky is starts to sink so everything becomes orange, we fuck on a branch, sometimes in twos, sometimes all four of us making each other come in zigzags and concentric blushes, our masks hide nothing. Nothing may be real. All we can do is be close to one another.’
They’d all dreamt it at least once, the beings watching them and pressing things on a giant flashing machine, looking very serious and urgent. How long they’d been having these dreams, they weren’t quite sure. It hadn’t been forever, but it wasn’t a recent development. Every now and again, for maybe the last thousand nights, one of them would wake from a sleep and say, ‘I saw them again.’
Biggest was the least keen on the theory of it being creatures keeping them captive and watching – to them, the beings they had seen in the back of their brain were more likely to be fossils from another time who had lived in the same space once, before it had been turned into a religious space and then abandoned.
When Iria was sixty-three, she began to be woken in the night by a sensation in her gut. She thought she recognised it, at first, as loneliness – a heat growing fast in with a boof boof terrible boof, a panic in the night.
Even though, if she rolled over onto her right side she’d see the top of San’s grey and silver head, the bulge of her body grey too and amber streetlamp tinged in the darkness. Cuddling her felt physically like the right thing, clenching the muscles in her arms as they spooned through sleep, feeling like a bear, a protector.
San saw through Iria’s sarcasm and her sturdy chelsea boots to the big heart within, and the day they met at a media tech conference, sharing the last of the pale triangular veggie sandwiches, was one of the best of the last twenty years, for Iria.
But those nights when the humming and shifting in her middle woke her, no thought or touch of San was enough to calm her sense that inside her was a hole, an absence yawning bigger every time because something fundamental that should be curled inside of her wasn’t. Everything that should be wasn’t there. Or, rather, everything was somewhere and she wasn’t there.
It was big as the universe. It flared and glowed, and ember flecks from it floated round her whole body each night as she stared at the paint cracks in the ceiling.
The four of them held hands and stamped in time with each other to make a steady beat – one foot twice, the other once. Iria couldn’t help but rise with it, a sheet of burning red, a column in the dark. She shifted from side to side, in time with their feet. How might she evade what was to come?
Eight hands dropped to sides, four masks turned blood-red as Iria herself and then biggest stepped forwards, and forwards again. They began chanting biggest’s name, just like frilly had mentioned, yelling it up to the stars or ‘stars’ as the case may be, yelling it so loud and long and over and over that the threads of it unravelled and frayed into sound.
Biggest took another step, into Iria’s middle, and Iria didn’t want to but she didn’t know how to stop herself from butting inside their mind and body, whizzing and smashing through the poor film of vein and organ and whatever else that exists inside us humans to keep the different fleshes and chemicals in their own appropriate section, causing all kind of holes and permeations to begin occurring in outrageous charring brutality as she clawed her firey way to the heart.
Biggest fell to their poor burnt knees then over onto their side where they lay, dead. Their clothes burnt off, flesh red and black and cooked-smelling, polluting everything, their mask nothing but a huge cracked blackened marble, with no visible brains or matter behind it to explain who or what had been.
Meanwhile, where had the biggest one gone?
Beth Williams was born in Manchester and now teaches in South East London. She has previously been published in The South Circular, The Queen’s Head and The Ink Well.