PodCastle 499: Flash Fiction Extravaganza — Flash Fiction Contest IV

Three Cats at the End of the World

By Aimee Ogden

On the heath at the beginning and the end of the world, a witch once built a cottage where she could live with the past, the present, and the future. They are hers, and she is theirs, for as long as life and as deep as death. (Continue Reading…)

PodCastle Miniature 101: National Geographic on Assignment: The Unicorn Enclosure

National Geographic on Assignment: The Unicorn Enclosure

by Sarah Monette

In the unicorn enclosure, all five unicorns are clustered along the fence, batting their long eyelashes beguilingly at a troop of girl scouts. The girls ooh and aah and argue about which one is prettiest, and the unicorns trail them patiently down the perimeter line.

These unicorns are captive-born (two from San Diego, one from Brookyn, one from Mexico City, and the stud all the way from Manchester in an attempt to maintain genetic diversity in North America’s captive breeding program); they’ve never hunted anything but sides of beef. But they’re too smart not to recognize their natural prey, even through plexiglas. The zoologists call the behavior I’m witnessing “playing,” in the same way a domestic cat “plays” with a mouse. Seen from the mouse’s standpoint, it’s not much of a game.

Unlike cats, unicorns seduce their prey. And evolution has brought them prey that wants to be seduced.

Even with FOIA, it’s hard to find accurate statistics on unicorn-related injuries and deaths. People don’t report them properly, the zoologists say, in the same way that battered spouses often don’t report their abusers. And it’s not just preadolescent girls, not just preadolescent boys, although certainly children who have not reached puberty are more vulnerable. One of the women whose portraits I took this week was the daughter of a man gored by a wild unicorn while hiking in Yellowstone. “Dad was too smart for that,” she told me grimly. “He was too smart for that, and it got him anyway.”

Some people say unicorns are the planet’s smartest predators. Some people say they’re smarter than human beings.

I must make some kind of motion, even though I’m not aware of it, because suddenly the boss mare’s head shoots up. She’s from Mexico; the blood of the conquistadores makes the spiraled groove of her horn deeper than is common in American or Canadian unicorns. Her head is beautiful, gently dished and short muzzled, her eyes large and dark and soft as smothering velvet. Even knowing what I know, even knowing that she would gore me for fun although I’m too old for her to bother eating, I feel the pull of her beauty, the pull that has the girl scouts wide-eyed and open-mouthed — the same pull that lures an ant into a Venus fly-trap.

The Mexican mare tosses her head, frustrated that she can’t smell me through the plexiglas; her mane whips in the soft breeze like the pennons of a conquering army. One of the girls, entranced, reaches out to try to touch, forgetting the plexiglas, forgetting what she must surely know, that the beauty she longs for is nothing but death.

All five unicorns lock on that outstretched hand, the stud’s lip lifting just enough for his teeth to gleam, vicious behind the delicate beauty of his face.

I take a deep breath — emerging from the dream I’ve been sharing with the ten- and eleven-year-old girls who can’t tear themselves away from the unicorn enclosure — and take the picture.

PodCastle 498: Chasing Flowers

Chasing Flowers

by L. Chan

Lian’s world is flat. Not just the landscape, which extends as far as the eye can see, horizon to horizon under the rolling twilight flux. Not just the houses, dotting the slate grey earth and the thunder cloud sky. Not just her folded servants, who used to pad around silently with their painted smiles and their unblinking eyes, unfurling from their hiding places to bring her the same dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a hundred years.

Lian ate regularly for fifty years before she realised that the food tasted of nothing but fire and ashes. Before she realised that she wasn’t hungry and had never been since her death. Not down here, where the sun peeks over the hills at the edge of the land and she still doesn’t know if it’s rising or setting because it’s been stuck there for the hundred years since she died.

(Continue Reading…)

PodCastle 497: Six Jobs

Six Jobs

By Tim Pratt


1.   Exterminator’s Helper

I was eleven when a little man with watery eyes who blinked and sniffed all the time shuffled into my classroom, moving carefully, not brushing up against any desks or people. My teacher stood frozen with her hand pointed at a map of Africa, and the kids all around me were unnaturally still, too, stuck in whatever moment they’d been caught in when time stopped: note-passing, nose-picking, empty-space-gazing.

I held my breath at first, hoping this strange person in the gray suit looking at a scrap of paper in his hand wouldn’t realize I was still conscious, still capable of movement. I didn’t know what he was, or what was happening, but I’d read a lot of books and seen a lot of shows about fairies and monsters and magic, and being in the middle of a story like that was so scary I was afraid I’d wet myself.

He squinted around, peered in my direction, and bustled over. “You’re . . .” A glance at the paper. “Makayla?”

“Kayla,” I whispered.

A brisk nod. “Never saw the point of nicknames, but whatever makes you happy. I’m Sigmund. I need your help. Actually, all your friends and . . . so on . . . here at school need your help.” He rubbed at his nose and sniffled more. I wondered if he had a cold. “It’s not quite a save-the-world thing, but you can save this little part of your world. Won’t that be, um, fun?”

(Continue Reading…)