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The Strange

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The Strange

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Author: Nathan Ballingrud
Publisher: Titan Books, 2023
Saga Press, 2023

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Anabelle Crisp is fourteen when the Silence arrives, severing all communication between Earth and her new home on Mars. One evening, while she and her father are closing their diner in the colony of New Galveston, they are robbed at gunpoint.

Among the stolen items is a recording of her absent mother's voice. Driven by righteous fury and desperation to lift her father's broken spirits, Anabelle sets out to confront the thieves and bring back the sole vestige of her mother. Accompanied by her loyal robot, an outcast pilot and a hardened outlaw, Anabelle must travel through derelict mining towns where a mineral called the Strange has transformed its residents in bizarre ways, across the Martian desert and to the shadowy Peabody Crater where she will discover than New Galveston, once a safe haven, is nothing more than a guttering candle in a dark world.


Chapter 1


I was thirteen when the Silence came to Mars, settling over us like a smothering dust. We don't talk about those days much anymore, and most who lived through them are dead. I'm old now--extravagantly old, I like to say--and I'll join them soon enough. Maybe that's why I find myself thinking back on those years more frequently, in the night's long hours: the terror and the loneliness that afflicted us all, and the shameful things we did because we were afraid.

Maybe that's why I've been thinking, too, about old friends and old enemies, about how sometimes they were the same people. And maybe that's why dear old Watson has come to visit me at last, gleaming in the lamplight, full of his own enchanted tales.

All my life I've wanted to write adventure stories, but I've always been more suited to reading than to writing. I never believed my imagination was up to the task. It's only now, close to the end, that I realize I never had to imagine one.

My name is Anabelle Crisp. This is the story of what happened to me, what I did about it, and the consequences thereof.

IT WAS EARLY evening and we were closing up the Mother Earth Diner. Normally my father liked to keep the place open well into the night. We'd been living with the Silence for nearly a year, and during that time it seemed that more and more people wanted a warm, bright place to be when darkness fell. My family was happy to provide that place. We specialized in good Southern cooking--beans and rice, collard greens, barbecued pork, that sort of thing--and we had our walls covered with pictures of famous Earth cities and landmarks. The Silence had imbued those photographs with an elegiac quality, it was true, but that only heightened their appeal.

That night, we were closing earlier than usual. The Moving Picture Club was presenting a picture show in the town square, which would draw most of the folks away from us. That was fine with me I was hoping to make it down to the square to see it myself. They were running The Lost World again, and though I'd seen it twice before, I was eager to go again. Arthur Conan Doyle was my favorite writer. In my excitement, I was rereading The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, its spine cracked from the love I had shown it.

Joe Reilly was our last customer of the evening. He was despised by many in New Galveston, and it was his habit to come in when he was most likely to remain undisturbed. I would have been happy to bar him entry altogether, but Father wouldn't have it. So I served him with curt silence. He ate quickly, wolfishly, and said, "You closing early tonight, Anabelle?"

"You know we are."

"Well. I guess I ought to let you get to it." He laid down his money and headed out. It was a relief usually he lingered.

I brought the dishes to the back where Father and Watson, our Engine, were cleaning up. Father had been talking under his breath and went quiet when I came back. He was talking to Mother again. I knew it gave him comfort, but it hurt to hear, nonetheless. He tried to do it only when I wasn't around, but sometimes I guess he couldn't help himself.

Watson was a Kitchen Engine--a bipedal construct, humanoid in form, utilitarian and featureless. I called him Watson after the character in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but he wasn't much more than a dishwashing program that my parents had overlaid with an inexpensive personality template--English Butler--to amuse themselves and their customers. He was no more programmed to be a detective's sidekick than I was raised to be the world's greatest amateur sleuth. It was a lie I chose to believe in.

I was only in the back for a minute, so when I returned to the dining area I was surprised to see a man at the counter. He sat hunched over his clasped hands, studying the entanglement of his fingers like he might puzzle out some mystery there. The hair on his head was long and tangled, blond, dusted with the soft pink shades of the low Martian desert. He wore one of the heavy-weather jackets favored by the nomadic cults, protecting them from the fatal cold of the nights outside the city. A symbol branded onto the leather of his right sleeve identified him as one of the Moths--named after the strange, body-harvesting moth native to Mars, the kind that nests in the dead. He raised his head to look at me and I was struck by his face, which was beautiful in a hard, unforgiving way--the way a desert is beautiful. His eyes were pale green, faintly luminescent I would have mistaken him for one of the miners if not for the symbol on the jacket. I thought he must have been my father's age at least--somewhere in his forties--until he spoke and I heard the youth in his voice.

"I was beginning to think I was gonna die here before someone decided to serve me."

His rudeness surprised me. I did not know him, which was unusual in New Galveston but not impossible, especially if he belonged to one of the desert cults. Still, my father and I were respected in the community and generally treated accordingly.

"I'm sorry, but we're closed."

"Sign says open."

"I was about to turn it off."

"But you ain't yet, so I guess you must be open. I'll take some black coffee."

Not knowing what else to do, I turned around and put some water on the range to boil. It bothered me, this outsider coming in and delivering orders like that. And it bothered me even more that I obeyed.

For a few minutes there was nothing to do, so I leaned against the counter while he sat there watching me. I slid my book under the counter, not wishing to provide this man an opening to further conversation. I heard Father messing around in the back, cleaning the dishes and putting them up. Talking to Mother. It was private: a quiet expression of grief, unremarkable and without harm but now that this man heard it, I was embarrassed.

"Who's back there?" the man said.

"My father. This is his place."

"Who's he talking to?"

"Our Engine," I said. The lie was easy by now. "He's a dishwasher."

"Dishwasher, huh? So where's your mama?"

"Earth." I felt the blood in my face.

"So you help him run the place? He lets his little girl out here to deal with all the dissolute human scum that comes through these doors while he hides away doing women's work with Engines in the back?"

"Our customers aren't scum. Generally they are more polite than you are."

"Well, I'm sorry if I offend."

"If you were really sorry, you would collect yourself and walk out that door. As I said, we're closed. They're showing a picture in the square tonight and I would like to see it."

"Little girl, I have come from the desert. I am tired and I am in need of shelter and some pleasant company. But more than any of that I am in need of hot coffee. And under this roof I find I am able to acquire all of it at once. I ain't inclined to leave."

The water started to whistle behind me and I poured it over the coffee grounds. "Well, I'm not inclined to be very pleasant," I said.

"Yeah, you made that clear already. What are you so fired up to see, anyhow?"

"They're showing The Lost World." Saying the words conjured the image of those beautiful dinosaurs, and I felt an unwelcome childish thrill.

He laughed and shook his head.

I wished I hadn't answered him now I was ashamed as well as angry. When I poured the coffee into his mug, I allowed a generous portion of grounds to slide in with it.

He said, "Ain't you seen it a hundred times anyway? And won't you see it a hundred times again? There won't be any more pictures coming from home now. What we got is what we got."

I didn't answer him. It wasn't something I hadn't thought of before. But I still held on to the notion that maybe we could make new pictures somehow. Eventually. I held on to the notion that the interruption in our normal life we'd been suffering under for so many months would soon be righted. All it needed was the application of hard work, reason, and mostly patience. The world moved according to a long-standing order, and it would come back as soon as people started acting regular again.

I wouldn't trouble to argue the point, though. He had his cup of coffee, and as far as I could figure it, my obligation to him had reached its conclusion. "Ten cents," I said.

He wrapped his dirty hands around the cup and closed his eyes, breathing in the smell of it. "That don't mean anything," he said.

I felt my patience snap. "It means you owe us ten cents! You can't just force your way in here when we're trying to close and then not pay for what you order!"

He put down his mug gently and said, "Force? Little girl, calm yourself down. I will pay you when I'm ready to pay you. And if you think money means a goddamn thing anymore, you're more childish than I thought. The old things don't matter anymore. Don't you get that?"

I heard the door to the kitchen open behind me, and my father said, "Belle, are you shouting? What's going on out here?"

Father looked tired. Those days, he always did. He wasn't very tall, and he'd been thin even when in good health, but in the months since the Silence started he'd come to look almost skeletal. His hair had thinned away to nothing on top, and what was left was mostly gray. His clothes, wet with water from washing dishes, hung loosely from his body. His face was worn. He was turning into an old man right in front of me. It was hard to look at him anymore without feeling a bewildering tangle of sadness and fear.

"I told this man to pay for his coffee and he won't do it."

He put his hand on my shoulder. "Anabelle, it's just coffee," he said into my ear. To the dusty scavenger across the counter, he said, "My daughter is headstrong. It's what keeps me honest." I bristled he had no right to apologize for me. Not when I was in the right. He offered the man a smile. If you did not know him, it might have seemed genuine.

"Your sign said open," said the man, as if my father had challenged him in some way.

"Of course. We're closing up, but you're welcome to stay and finish."

"Why don't you go ahead and shut it off."

"I don't mind staying open a while longer. To be honest, you're doing me a favor. I have work to do here anyway. And I wouldn't mind the company." Father walked around the counter with his broom, ready to clean the main floor.

"I said shut the sign off."

Father stopped, turned to look at the man. Another surge of anger galloped through my blood. I was always hot-tempered, and it got me into trouble sometimes, but some folks brought it out. Some folks just needed to be hit in the face.

I wanted Father to put him in his place. I wanted him to grab this intruder by his filthy collar and drag him kicking and hollering through the diner and throw him outside. I wanted him to blacken those pretty eyes. But it wasn't his way. He'd always been a mild soul. He liked tranquility and he liked good manners. I used to wonder what it had been that caused such a delicate-natured man to volunteer to be one of the first permanent colonists on Mars, those ten years ago. Brave men did that sort of thing. My father was not brave.

Mother was.

"All right," he said. He flicked his eyes to me and then back to the man. "Just stay calm. I'll shut it off."

"I am calm, old man. I'll stay that way too as long as you do what I say."

Father walked to the sign hanging inside the window, and as he did this I calculated my odds against the intruder. I had boiling water to hand, but it would take me two or three good strides to fetch it, another to turn around and fling it at him. That left him too much time. We'd taken the knives to the back to be washed the fryer was off, the oil cooling. Watson remained in the back, scrubbing plates, as useless as a potted plant. So I glared fiercely at him and I hoped his imagination was sufficient to interpret the magnitude of ills I visited upon him in my mind.

The vacancy of his expression as he looked back at me suggested it was not.

Father pulled the cord on the neon sign. It sputtered and went out. He flipped a switch and half the interior lights went out, too, leaving only the kitchen illuminated, and a few emergency lights here in the dining area. He stayed quiet as he walked back around the counter, until he stood beside me. "There," he said. "We're closed. Anabelle, go back in the kitchen."

"You just stay where you are, Anabelle," the man said.

"Do as I say. Right now."

I moved to obey, even though every impulse told me to stay.

The man slapped his hand on the countertop. "Do you not listen? Do you not--"

My father raised his voice, too, but before I could parse what he was saying, the stranger removed a pistol from his belt, hidden beneath his coat, and with a grace and a practice I would not have attributed to one with such a rough aspect, he flipped it once in the air so that he held it by its barrel, and he brought it down in a vicious strike against my father's temple, dropping him to the counter like a sack of oats. Father slid to the floor I tried to hold him up, but he was too heavy. The intruder had the gun by its grip again, the transition too fast for me to follow, its open end pointed at my face.

"Now goddamn it, you stay right there!"

I was terrified. I did not move. I watched my father bleeding quietly onto the floor, which was filthy from the treads of our feet and the sand blown in from outside. He was as still as a moon in the open sky.

"Help me with him," the stranger said. He climbed over the countertop and slid down on our side. He hooked his hands under my father's shoulders and looked at me. "I said help me, girl!"

I did. I would like to tell you that I fought him, that I grabbed whatever was at hand and attacked him without regard for my own safety. But I was afraid. His quick action had taken the fight straight out of me. Now I was alone with him, and I was afraid. So I took my father's ankles, and when the man instructed me to help carry him into the back, I obeyed.

We called this room the kitchen, even though most of the actual cooking was done on the range up front, where the customers could watch you. This back room was narrow and used mostly for washing dirty dishes and storing ingredients. A large, waist-high icebox fit snugly next to the sink. On the other side of the sink was the back door, with a heavy security bar fit across it. We liked to pretend New Galveston was too small to accommodate the sort of criminal to make such a measure necessary, but Father maintained that bad men could be found everywhere. Though I had always believed him, I was sorry to see it proved so powerfully.

Watson stood by the sink. He looked so intimidating: his large metal body solid and strong, like a big, invulnerable barrel. His arms were made of steel and could crumple a human skull in the grip of their rubber-padded pincers like a grapefruit. The light from his eyes, in that moment, made him look deadly, like something from a dime novel. I wished with my whole heart that he would surprise this man--that he would surprise me.

"Oh dear," he said.

The man did not spare him a glance. We laid my father on the floor. As soon as I released his ankles I backed up against the wall, next to a shelf stacked with jars full of preserves, with flour and sugar and oats. Each one a missile I was too scared to use. I felt my breath passing into and out of my lungs. I felt the pulse of blood in my head, so heavy that it made me feel faint.

The stranger stood over my father, examining him the way a veterinarian might a felled horse. He glanced at me. "He ain't dead, just so you know."

I nodded, but I wasn't sure I believed it. I'd seen dead people before--once when two boys were horsing around on a tractor and one fell beneath the disc harrow dragging behind them, and several more later on, when the influenza cut through us all like a holy judgment. All of them looked just as still, just as expunged of possibility, as my father did then.

"Here's what's going to happen." When I didn't look in his direction, he clapped his hands together once, sharply. "Do you hear me, little girl? Pay attention. I am going to open that back door there and make a signal. Then some of my friends are going to come in. They're going to take a look around here and see what might be useful, and then they're going to go ahead and take it. After that, we're all going to leave. All right?" He took a step forward and said, "Are you hearing me?"

"I hear you just fine! You're a thief! That's all you are is a damn thief!"

He had the nerve to look angry. "You better be glad that's all I am. You better hope that's all I stay. You might not think it, but this can get a whole lot worse. So just stand there quietly like a good little girl and let this play out the way it's meant to."

The stranger slid the security bar from the back door and pulled it open, letting in a cool blast of night air. He leaned out and made a low trilling sound, like the Martian cricket that was always infiltrating our greenhouses. After a few moments he stepped away and two others came in.

A man and a woman, both dressed for the cold, each face scoured ageless by the harsh and unblocked winds of the plain. The man was tall and bald, with the same reflective green eyes as the stranger. He ignored my fallen father and me, moving instead to the shelving behind us and scooping preserves into a sack. The woman had black hair chopped short and a stocky frame, her face pockmarked with acne scars. She glanced at me and then at my father. "Dead?" she asked.

"Now Sally. What do you take me for?"

"You probably shouldn't ask."

She joined the other in the scouring of our stores. While they ransacked for food, the stranger went to the table my father used as a desk and overturned the small boxes he kept there, scattering receipts, pens, paper clips, and the hard round cylinders we used for Watson--for recording messages, for music, for backup. He gathered these latter up and slipped them into the pockets of his jacket. It was this loss, even more than that of the food, that would hurt us.

The whole operation took less than five minutes. As they filed out into the night, silently and quickly, taking with them whatever they could of our food and water, the man who started it all made a stop at the icebox and opened it up, removing from the foggy interior a choice bit of frozen Kansas beef.

On his way to the door he stopped by Watson and patted his cheek. "You ought to come looking for me, big fella. It's a different world out there for folks like you." Then he looked back at me. He touched a finger to his head, as though he were raising the brim of an imaginary cap, and said, "Name's Silas Mundt. I don't reckon you'll see me again."

"You better pray I don't," I said.

"Enjoy the picture show, Anabelle. I believe you can still make it if you hurry."

And then he closed the door behind him. I hefted the bar back into place, locking us in, and then rushed to my father, who was indeed still alive, and breathing shallowly. I cleaned the blood from his head with the hem of my dress. Only then did I allow the tears to come, and they came with a force that frightened me.

It would be some time before I allowed them again.

Copyright © 2023 by Nathan Ballingrud


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