Cover illustration by Lauren Saint-Onge.
Alias Space and Other Stories is the first fiction collection from Nebula Award-winning writer Kelly Robson, who vaulted onto the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror stage in 2015, earning spots in multiple Year’s Best anthologies. This volume collects Robson’s best stories to date, along with exciting new work, and notes to accompany each piece.
Robson’s stories are noted for their compassion, humanity, humor, rigor, and joy. This volume includes the chilling gothic horror “A Human Stain,” winner of the 2018 Nebula Award; the madcap historical fantasy “Waters of Versailles,” which was a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards; and science fiction stories such as the touching “Intervention,” chilling “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill,” obscene “What Gentle Women Dare,” heartbreaking “Two-Year Man,” and many others.
These fourteen stories showcase Robson’s whip-smart richness of invention, brilliant storytelling, deep worldbuilding, and devilish sense of humor.
Kelly Robson grew up in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, and as a teenager was crowned princess of the Hinton Big Horn Rodeo. From 2008 to 2012, she wrote the wine and spirits column for Chatelaine, Canada’s largest women’s magazine. Kelly consults as a creative futurist for organizations such as UNICEF and the Suncor Energy Foundation. She and her wife, writer A.M. Dellamonica, live in downtown Toronto.
From Publishers Weekly (Starred Review):
“Across 14 short pieces, Robson (Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach) demonstrates a dizzying versatility, dipping into both science fiction and fantasy—and sometimes blurring the line between the two… Some of these stories are uncomfortable, even disturbing, in their raw emotion and uncompromising vision, and even the more reassuring tales still challenge preconceptions and the status quo. This is a superb showcase of Robson’s talents.”
From Michael Bishop:
“I admire both the short fiction of Kelly Robson and the author herself, inordinately. She never takes the easy way to tell a story and yet never makes any story seem the result of grueling struggle, even if she must sweat in solitude (or with keen editorial help) to get each story dead-on-the-dollar right.
“Further, these stories span wide ranges of space, time, history, social culture, and technological advance, as if Kelly has not only visited but lived in all the eras and milieus serving as her settings, past, present, or future. And because every tale radiates authenticity, Alias Space shines as a collection: a truly singular achievement.”
From Jonathan Strahan:
“Kelly Robson is one of the best, most exciting and most complete new storytellers working today.”
From Gary K. Wolfe:
“If there had been any doubt that Robson is one of the most accomplished and versatile new writers (her SF career only dates back to 2015), Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach should dispel it.”
From Neil Clarke:
“The range and quality of her work tell me that this is an author to watch.”
Table of Contents:
- Two-Year Man
- A Study in Oils
- So You Want to be a Honeypot
- Two Watersheds
- The Desperate Flesh
- Alias Space
- Skin City
- Waters of Versailles
- What Gentle Women Dare
- The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill
- We Who Live in The Heart
- A Human Stain
Getting the baby through security was easy. Mikkel had been smuggling food out of the lab for years. He’d long since learned how to trick the guards.
Mikkel had never been smart, but the guards were four-year men and that meant they were lazy. If he put something good at the top of his lunch pail at the end of his shift, the guards would grab it and never dig deeper. Mikkel let them have the half-eaten boxes of sooty chocolate truffles and stale pastries, but always took something home for Anna.
Most days it was only wrinkled apples and hard oranges, soured milk, damp sugar packets and old teabags. But sometimes he would find something good. Once he’d found a working media player at the bottom of the garbage bin in the eight-year man’s office. He had been so sure the guards would find it and accuse him of stealing that he’d almost tossed it in the incinerator. But he’d distracted the guards with some water-stained skin magazines from the six-year men’s shower room and brought that media player home to Anna.
She traded it for a pair of space heaters and ten kilos of good flour. They had dumplings for months.
The baby was the best thing he’d ever found. And she was such a good girl—quiet and still. Mikkel had taken a few minutes to hold her in the warmth beside the incinerator, cuddling her close and listening to the gobble and clack of her strange yellow beak. He swaddled her tightly in clean rags, taking care to wrap her pudgy hands separately so she couldn’t rake her talons across that sweet pink baby belly. Then he put her in the bottom of his plastic lunch pail, layered a clean pair of janitor’s coveralls over her, and topped the pail with a box of day-old pastries he’d found in the six-year men’s lounge.
“Apple strudel,” grunted Hermann, the four-year man in charge of the early morning guard shift. “Those pasty scientists don’t know good eats. Imagine leaving strudel to sit.”
“Cafe Sluka has the best strudel in Vienna, so everyone says,” Mikkel said as he passed through the security gate.
“Like you’d know, moron. Wouldn’t let you through the door.”
Mikkel ducked his head and kept his eyes on the floor. “I heated them in the microwave for you.”
He rushed out into the grey winter light as the guards munched warm strudel.
Mikkel checked the baby as soon as he rounded the corner, and then kept checking her every few minutes on the way home. He was careful to make sure nobody saw. But the streetcars were nearly empty in the early morning, and nobody would find it strange to see a two-year man poking his nose in his lunch pail.
The baby was quiet and good. Anna would be so pleased. The thought kept him warm all the way home.
A Study in Oils
The day after he’d killed Dorgon, Zhang Lei’s team hauled him to a surgeon. Twenty minutes was all it took to install the noose around his carotid artery, then two minutes to connect the disable button and process the change to his ID. His teammates were as gentle as they could be. When it was all done, the team’s enforcer clasped Zhang Lei’s shoulder in a meaty hand.
“We test it now,” Korchenko said, and Zhang Lei had gone down like a slab of meat.
When he woke, his friends looked concerned, sympathetic, even a little regretful.
That attitude didn’t last long. After the surgery, the team traveled to a game in Surgut. Zhang Lei’s disable button was line-of-sight. Anyone who could see it could trigger it. He passed out five times along the way, and spent most of the game slumped on the bench, head lolling, his biom working hard to keep him from brain damage. His teammates had to carry him home.
For a few weeks, they treated him like a mascot, hauling him from residence to practice rink to arena and back again. They soon tired of it and began leaving him behind. The first time he went out alone he came back on a cargo float, with a shattered jaw and bootprint-shaped bruises on his gut. That was okay. He figured he deserved it.
Then one night after an embarrassing loss, the team began hitting the button for fun. First Korchenko, as a joke. Then the others. Didn’t take long for Zhang Lei to become their new punching bag. So he ran. Hid out in Sklad’s lower levels, pulling temporary privacy veils over his ID every fifteen minutes to keep the team from tracking him. When they were busy at the arena warming up for a game, he bolted for Harbin.
He passed out once on the way to the nearest intra-hab connector, but the brawler who hit his disable button was old and drunk. Zhang Lei collected few kicks to the ribs and one to the balls before the drunk staggered off. Nobody else took the opportunity to get their licks in, but nobody helped him, either.
Boarding the connector, he got lucky. A crèche manager was transferring four squalling newborns, and the crib’s noise-dampening tech was broken. The pod emptied out—just him and the crèche manager. She ignored him all the way to Harbin. He kept his distance, but when they got to their destination, he followed her into the bowels of the hab. She was busy with the babies and didn’t notice at first. But when he joined her in an elevator, she got scared.
“What do you want?” she demanded, her voice high with tension.
He tried to explain, but she was terrified. That big red label on his button—killer—fair game—didn’t fill people with confidence in his character. She hit the button hard, several times. He spent an hour on the floor of the elevator, riding from level to level, and came to with internal bleeding, a cracked ocular orbit, three broken ribs, and a vicious bite mark on his left buttock.
He limped down to the lowest level, where they put the crèches, and found his old crèche manager. She was gray, stooped, and much more frail than he remembered.
“Zhang Lei.” She put a gentle palm on his head—the only place that didn’t hurt. “I was your first cuddler. I decanted you myself. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
If he cried then, he never admitted it.
The Desperate Flesh
Karen Kain’s mission was to house and care for Toronto’s geriatric lesbian population. With only eighteen beds in a compact heritage mansion on the corner of Queen and University, Karen could hardly house them all, but the city also had Ivan Coyote house, a hundred-bed long-term care home on Church and King. Together, Karen and Ivan were the bulwark against scattering women to the far edges of the city to live side-by-side with old men who sprung semis when they heard the word lesbian.
The next incident happened at City Hall, just a few days later. When Margaret got the call, she peeled out the door, ran full out for three blocks, and staggered through Nathan Philips Square with a vicious stitch in her side. Out of shape; out of control. Once, Margaret had been a ballet dancer. Tireless, dedicated, unflappable. Now she was a mess. A mess in charge of a mess.
Margo, Titus, and Trinh sat on folding chairs in a quiet corner of the City Hall lobby, clothes crumpled underfoot, gray wool blankets draped over their bare shoulders. Betty stood beside them—clothed, thank goodness. A few steps away, Pia flirted in Spanish with a tall police officer whose duty belt fit snugly around ample hips. Pia’s navy blue scrubs were the exact shade of the officer’s uniform.
“I don’t think there’ll be a problem,” Betty whispered to Margaret. “That cop is on our side.”
“Mmm,” said Titus. “Sure is.”
Margo grinned and shrugged the blanket off her shoulders. A ray of sunlight highlighted her plummy areolas. Trinh dropped her blanket too. Margaret snatched the blankets from the floor, fumbled them, folded them into bulky wads. When she finished, she placed them across the two women’s laps, covering their spare gray bushes. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. Titus lifted herself creakily from her chair, drew her blanket from beneath her butt, folded it herself, and settled back down with the fabric neatly draped across her bony thighs.
The officer glanced over, adjusted her sunglasses, and turned her attention back to Pia.
The elevator dinged. The General Manager of Long-Term Care pushed through the parting doors and stalked across the lobby, glaring at Margaret as he adjusted the already-perfect knot in his tie.
“The police might be on our side,” said Margaret. “But the city isn’t.”
The city had never been on Karen Kain’s side. They wanted the building for a museum, maybe a cultural center, anything but an old-age home for lesbians. Margaret’s job was to change the city’s mind.
Kitten Heel Floozy has Emotional Breakdown on Richmond Street
Getting to the weekend took every bit of sunny-side-up determination Agnes could muster. Usually she was a pretty agile troubleshooter, but the Mason and Avery had been blizzarding her with spam for four days, destroying her concentration. Because she’d accepted the free lunch, it’d be weeks before she could block them.
Finally, she gave up and pinged them back.
“I’m so sorry,” said Avery, and she did look sincerely regretful. “The spam schedule is controlled by the customer relations management algorithm.”
“Okay,” Agnes said. “Is there anything we can do to stop it?”
“All we have to do is move to the next stage of the sales process,” said Mason, smoothly.
“Just agree to let us send you a sample,” Avery added. “In a week we’ll check in with you and get your feedback. No purchase obligation.”
Agnes had no choice, but she was finally free from the hurricane of spam. She walked home feeling proud about surviving the week without alienating her manager, offending a client, or causing a bot pileup. Then she stepped on a subway ventilation grate and ripped off a heel.
The shoes were favorites—faux-fur pumps shaped like pouncing kittens—so even on the best of days she would have been upset. As it was, she planted herself beside a bed of roses in full view of every pedestrian, drone, and stationary camera on the block, and bawled her mask soppy.
The only thing that got her on her feet again was the thought of ending up as a lead article on BlogTO, with video clips from multiple angles, right under Raccoon Hijacks Cop Drone and Toronto Named Vertical Orchard Capital of the World.
She was forty. Undeniably an adult, with so many small business loans and lines of credit that her bank manager sent her a birthday card every year. But still, she couldn’t let people go. Not without feeling as if they’d taken one of her organs with them.
She limped east on Queen Street, one leg four inches longer than the other. If Nellie could leave so easily, what kept Susanne and Cat from following? And why shouldn’t they leave, if they wanted? It was inevitable they would, some day. If biological family wasn’t a life sentence, chosen family wasn’t, either.
Home was an old brick-and-beam retail space on Church Street. Rent through the roof but Agnes made it work. With the wide window frontage, live audiences could watch from the street when Alias Space trapped their shows.
A large package was propped outside the door. A black resin flat-pack, long as Agnes was tall. The glossy black logo on the lid seemed vaguely familiar.
Rain began to pockmark the package with raindrops. A tiny security bot buzzed in close to scan Agnes’ eye, then scooted off to guard someone else’s delivery. Agnes put her arms around the package and tried to lift it. It was heavy and awkward, just a bit too thick to get her hands around. Finally, she tucked it under her arm and dragged it inside, ripping the resin off the bottom edge. She tipped it over onto its long end and pushed it through the studio’s threshold. Susanna and Cat looked up from their workbenches.
“What’s that?” said Susanna.
“I don’t know. Something for work. A sales sample.”
Agnes stripped off her sodden mask and let it fall to the floor. Cat pushed her rolling seat away from her sewing machine and looked the package up and down.
“Wow, that looks like the Skinless logo.”
“A sex bot.” Susanna’s voice rose to a screech. “Really, Ag? You want to replace Nell with a bot?”
“It’s for Tower of Cars. Listen…” But Agnes couldn’t summon the energy for an explanation, much less an argument. She brandished her broken shoe. “I’ve had a really bad day.”
“Yeah, you’re a mess. Want some tea?” Cat didn’t wait for an answer. She abandoned her workstation, where a waterfall of pink tulle spilled to the floor on its way to becoming a petticoat, and began filling the kettle.
Agnes dragged the package to her room and tipped it up to lean against the frosted room divider. Then she freshened her face and slipped into a pair of fluffy slippers. When she rejoined the girls, the package loomed behind the plexiglass like a tombstone. Cat and Susanna ignored it, and Agnes took their cue and ignored it, too.
If she had to get up in the middle of the night and move the package out of sight, it wasn’t because the contents unnerved her. Bots were bots. Tools like any other.
In Toronto, as in most city-states, the population skinned the city to accommodate their aesthetic preferences, adding banks of greenery, inserting views and vistas, changing the city’s shapes, textures, and colors to suit themselves. No city was perfectly designed for all its people, but skinning provided personal customization options. It was an effective solution to the problems created by providing utilities and services at the maximum economy of scale.
People from Fearsville skinned the city too, but their skins deleted people from the cityscape, eliminating the visible population—or at least reducing them to wireframes to avoid collisions. They’d lost the privacy wars, and retreated to their towers to their private, anonymous towers. Many never left Fearsville, and the rest only emerged fully veiled, their IDs masked by a bonded security firm and available only on a need-to-know basis.
“All I have to do is get her to notice me,” Kass said. “Then nature can take its course.”
Angel laughed. “How? Privacy nuts skin us out of the landscape. Even if you got in her face, all she’d see is wireframe.”
“Yeah, but I have a plan.”
They were was sharing a bottle of Tecumseth Tower pinot noir under a leafy golden locust tree on Queen Street. A train of cars hummed past, protected by a shimmering bounce field. Mid-day rush over, the street was comparatively quiet. Just enough free space outside Osgood Station for a rec group to kick around a soccer ball around. They were loud—five kids, an oldster with a toddler in a chest sling, and two heavily pregnant people supported by mobility aids—all screeching and laughing over imaginary fouls.
“Be careful,” said Angel. “My neighbor’s cousin was carrying groceries past Fearsville once. She dropped a bag of apples and one of them rolled into their sidewalk setback. Not even into the building, just a piece of land they think is theirs. And when she tried to retrieve it, boom. Right up the nose. She was unconscious for three hours.”
“That’s an urban legend.”
“Maybe,” Angel replied. “But the point is, their world view is completely different from ours. When they look around, they see the enemy. What do you see, Kass?”
“Friends I haven’t met yet.”
“Right. How you going to reconcile that?”
“There are legitimate reasons for people to protect their privacy. They can’t all be paranoid.”
Angel looked skeptical.
Kass leaned back in her chair and scanned the leaves overhead for inspiration. Then she let her gaze drift to the Fearsville towers. From the roofs, spindles stretched high to stabilize Toronto’s weather dome, their surfaces covered in vertical farms that helped feed their inhabitants.
“Just because someone doesn’t like you, doesn’t mean they’re bad,” said Kass.
“Maybe. I guess I just want them to prove it,” said Angel.
Kass tipped the last of the wine into their glasses. Then a flash of black caught her eye.
“Shit, there she is,” she whispered.
The woman sauntered through Osgoode Station’s wide archway, gloved thumbs hooked in the pockets of her billowing privacy wrap. Maybe she didn’t want to be noticed, but the posture stretched the loose fabric over her shoulders and chest, emphasizing her breasts. Kass followed her with hungry eyes until she disappeared into one of Fearsville’s narrow entryways.
“She’s never going to talk to me,” she moaned.
“I thought you had a plan?”
Kass lurched to her feet, banging the table with her knees and spilling the last of the wine.
“I do, and I’m starting right now.”
- Lauren Saint-Onge
- Kelly Robson
- 433 pages
- eBook Edition