Writing Prompts on Tor.com presents a piece of original art and asks sci-fi/fantasy authors to write a very short story (or perhaps a poem!) reacting to or inspired by it. This month’s Writing Prompts features new contributions from authors Beth Bernobich, Tina Connolly, Max Gladstone, and J.A. Souders.
The art for this round of Writing Prompts is by Victor Mosquera. You can jump right to an author’s story by clicking on their name:
By Beth Bernobich
“This isn’t our usual walk,” Rose said to Lillian.
Not even close to it. Their usual walk took them down High Street to Glyndon, and back around to their house, but today, Lillian had insisted on following a footpath into the woods southwest of town. For the past half hour, they’d been walking along a dirt track, shaded by ash and oak, and the occasional southern pine. A dank, muddy scent told Rose they were close to the Nottoway River, but otherwise she had lost track of their direction.
Lillian herself wore an abstracted air that said she was probably calculating the square root of her checkbook. Rose shook her arm gently. “Hey.”
Her wife glanced up, startled, then laughed. “Sorry. No, it’s not our usual. I just wanted to show you something new. And before you say it, we won’t be late for dinner.”
Rose let a sigh of relief and exasperation trickle from her lips. Relief, because they had planned this dinner weeks ago, and Rose wanted a longer visit with their newest granddaughter, whom they called Event Horizon because she absorbed everyone’s energy. Exasperation because Lillian always had the best of intentions, but…
“Do you promise?” she said.
Lillian snorted. “I promise. Double, triple—”
She broke off and knelt by the side of the path, bracing herself with her cane. A folded rectangle of paper lay half-buried in the soil. Lillian tugged it free and brushed away the dirt. It looked to be a church pamphlet, Rose thought, complete with guarantees of salvation and a welcome into the community, though with certain reservations about race and sexual orientation.
Lillian unfolded the sheet carefully. Damp had softened the edges, and the ink had faded, but the center was intact. Litter, Rose growled to herself. In the past month, Lillian had taken to collecting all kinds of trash. Rose sighted a crumpled wad of newspaper farther along the path. She started to pick that up, too, but Lillian shook her head. “Not the right aerodynamics.” She stuffed her find into her tote bag. “Come on. We’re almost there.”
Whatever Rose had expected, it was not this enormous meadow under the staring August sky. Poplars bounded the grassy clearing, which rose gradually toward a crown of bare dirt. The air shimmered with dust and sunlight, and the hum of insects had dropped away, leaving the world drenched in unnatural silence. Rose shivered. The image of a history textbook crossed her mind, something about ancient gods and their sacrifices. Nonsense, she told herself. She and Lillian were engineers—long retired engineers, yes, but nevertheless, they lived by logic and hard facts.
“Stay here,” Lillian said.
But Lillian was already hurrying up the slope as fast as her cane allowed. Once at the top, she dumped the contents of her tote bag onto the circle of dirt. Rose’s heart stuttered in sudden apprehension as the mound grew higher and higher, and yet the tote bag continued to spew more papers. I’m dreaming. I’m having nightmares just like Lillian’s…
Lillian tossed the bag to one side. Rose sucked in a breath and held it while her wife arranged the scraps into some strict arrangement known only to herself. Had Lillian gone mad? Suffered a miniature stroke? It wasn’t uncommon at their age. I should have noticed. I should have paid more attention.
Lillian set the last fragment atop the heap. Touched it lightly with a smile that did nothing to comfort Rose.
“All done,” she said, as she stumped down the hillside.
“What is done?” Rose asked with some asperity. “Tell me.”
“Ah.” Lillian raked her fingers through her wiry hair. “Well. You know about my dreams.”
Your nightmares. Yes, I know.
“I finally made sense of them,” Lillian said. “Or some kind of sense. I wanted to share the discovery with you.”
She took hold of Rose’s hand, and Rose felt the tattoo of her pulse. Agitated. Anxious. Strangely enough, that calmed her own fears. “What are we doing?”
“Magic,” Lillian said.
Magic? Before she could protest, however, Lillian began to recite a string of numbers. Not just any numbers, Rose realized. These were scientific constants, each one delivered in ringing tones. The numbers soon turned into formulas. Rose’s pulse beat faster as she recognized the formula for moment of inertia, for angular impulse, then others from her undergraduate days, when she had discovered her love of science, when she’d glimpsed the patterns in what had first seemed a chaos of data.
The formulas grew more and more complex. The air around them drew tight, and the thick wet scent of summer on Virginia’s coastal plains vanished, replaced by a cool pine tang that reminded Rose of her childhood in the mountains. Her skin felt raw, and she needed all her strength to draw a proper breath.
Believe in me. Please.
I believe in you, my love.
A sharp ping reverberated through Rose’s body. Her vision cleared. She blinked. Only to find her breath locked tight once more.
The heap of paper had vanished. In its place stood an enormous airplane—a paper airplane—its sharp nose pointing east, its wings sweeping back in an angle she recognized from years upon years ago, when she and her cousins had crafted what seemed like hundreds and set them loose from tall trees, from upper stairways, from wherever they could gain enough height and open air.
“How did you do that?” she whispered. “How does it work?”
“By magic. And dreams. And science,” Lillian replied. “I was an aerospace engineer, remember?”
“I remember.” She wanted to laugh, but she was trembling inside.
Lillian pressed a warm kiss upon Rose’s cheek. “We will come back before dinner,” she said softly. “I promise.”
“I believe you,” Rose breathed.
Lillian grinned and clasped Rose’s hand in hers—a warm and invigorating grip that made Rose’s pulse jump as it had for the past fifty years. The terror of the inexplicable receded and she grinned back.
Together they climbed into the airplane and settled into the cockpit.
“So,” Lillian said. “Where do you want to go?”
By Tina Connolly
I am the paper this story is written on.
The words crease me, fold me, and I go
from lips to ear
each new storyteller remaking me
as my story shifts and changes.
The grandmother shapes me in her thatched hut,
crisp and sharp,
a story of a beast who loves a girl who danced on knives.
I fly and go,
spiraling to a yellow-dress milkmaid
who sings the beast into a bear;
the knives into flowers,
and off I fly again,
through the air
through the years,
A child catches me,
refolds with jammy fingers
and I straight-shoot a story of a T-Rex who meets Spaceman Sue
on a hot red planet full of dust.
There are marvelous days
winging around the playground:
the T-Rex shifts:
and Spaceman Sue—
well, she stays Spaceman Sue for awhile,
but her adventures are bright and bold
and color me with green and orange
But at last the story breaks free—
all true stories do—
and I slip away through a teacher
who tells it to a dentist
who tells it to a dancer
who tells it to a butcher
who blesses it with red fingers
and now it is off again,
a wistful story of a lonely boy
who meets a dragon
and brings him charcuterie.
I am bent
I am bloodied
as the best stories are.
I might slip away for good
as the best stories do
leaving only a teasing glimpse
like a dream at dawn.
My story rises into the sky
but there it is caught
by a catcher,
a man from a museum of thoughts and steel
a man with delicate hands and a butterfly net
(real stories, true stories do not need
they stand up to abuse.)
The man straightens my bent nose,
sponges away the blood
presses my damp wings flat
puts the story under glass.
I watch the birds
as the flashbulbs and the gaze
my text fades to white
in the light of the summer sun.
By Max Gladstone
“We’ve lost her,” Sam said.
Hard to disagree. Matheson’s trail led us to a barren mindscape: a desk flat as Kansas and several miles on a side, wood grain standing in for rows of corn. I climbed to the edge and looked over. The Cliffs of Dover had nothing on these, and the carpet a mile and a half down didn’t seem soft enough to break my fall, or anyone’s. “Impossible.”
Far south a legal pad loomed like a plateau, and nearby lay a paper airplane the size of a Cessna, tipped onto one wing, made so no folds showed from outside. No way on or off the desk. No complex patterns in the whole dream. Flat colors. Nowhere to go, or hide.
Sam danced cyclones among the dust mites on his many wings. “Maybe she doubled back past us in the dream.”
“You would have seen her.”
“Even I miss things, boss lady.”
“A mouse hole behind the bed, maybe?” Bed was barely the right word—if those sheets were water you could float a whole navy on them. I checked my wrist. The gauge glowed through the skin above the vein. “Twenty minutes left ’till we go off sync.”
Sam landed in a circle around me: row after row of black birds with blinking black bird eyes. Some people take totem bodies for a head-trip. Beats me why. “How would she get off the desk? No wings.”
“Maybe she used the airplane.”
“Which case it’d be down there.” I leaned back against the plane’s wing. Good thick creamy paper, the kind you’d write love letters on, the kind that burns well. “You sure there’s nothing missing from that pad? Maybe she made a paper parachute. Or another airplane.”
“Nothing missing. Nothing written, either.”
The paper was pebbly, scratchy but not unpleasant, like lying in autumn leaves. Seventeen minutes on my wrist. A year tempting Matheson into the open, three men dead in the sting, only for her to dose as the trap’s jaws closed. I searched her, just didn’t check inside her mouth. And in—sixteen minutes—the dose would sink her to subjective eternity in dreams, safe from prosecution, jail, us. The ultimate escape. Flown the coop. Fifteen.
“Sam, the airplane’s folds are all on the underside.”
Three dozen bird heads cocked to the left. “So?”
“Help me turn it over.”
Paper’s heavy, but we managed. Then I put my back against one half of a fold, my shoes against the other, and pushed.
Four minutes. The folds petaled open to reveal a charcoal sketch of a girl Matheson hadn’t been for a long time. Except the vicious spark in her eye—that was modern. That was her. She hadn’t run. Just snuck into that picture, waiting for us to fall out of sync, waiting for her freedom.
I wondered who drew this picture that stuck so deep in her memory. Then I got out the cuffs. “Matheson, you’re under arrest.”
By J.A. Souders
The smell of flash powder fills my nose. The photographers don’t say anything as they struggle to remove the picture from the humans’ camera and move onto the next plane before the race starts. And I ignore them as I prepare.
The four other FlyBoys nervously do their own final flight checks. This flight is more than just keeping our flyers in the air. It’s our reputations on stake. And our egos.
We are the best of the best and this last race—the Grand Prix—will determine who is the best. I fully intend for that to be me.
Their flyers look the same—paper folded to be short, fat and flat, but with few differences and no additions. Mine, however, is skinny and long and my secret weapon, a paperclip, is carefully attached at the tail.
“FlyBoys! Take your places!” the announcer shouts.
My heart pounds against my ribs, but I crawl into my flyer, taking my position. My crew takes theirs at the back, readying themselves for the push that’ll send me over the edge, while I grab tightly to the wings.
A horn blares, then I’m weightless. My breath escapes my lungs as the ground rushes toward me. I twist the wings and the plane swoops up again, before leveling out.
The other counter slowly draws closer, but I remind myself it’s about making it the furthest. Although making it all the way to the counter would be like not only hitting the brass ring, but flying right through it.
I let out a whoop and close my eyes as excitement lights a fire in my veins.
Without warning, an out of control flyer swoops its nose into the nose of mine, sending me into a spiral. Panic slices into me, just as the wings cut deep into my palms as I fight for control. Blood soaks the paper and I worry it’ll throw off the weight of my flyer, shortening my distance. But I finally manage to wrangle it back on its path, even if I’m lower than I’d like.
The pain keeps me focused. My vision tunnels, blinding me to anything but the far counter. The roar of the wind deafens me to everything else. My hands and body move, automatically making small corrections to keep me in the air, while I will my flyer to keep going.
Finally, it touches down, but I sit there, my bleeding hands still gripping the wings. My breath just out of reach. It isn’t until I’m pulled from my flyer and hugged, hand-shaked, and congratulated, that I realize I not only won, but flew straight through that brass ring.
More camera flashes go off. I can’t see a thing. But it can’t stop the grin pulling my cheeks tight or the pride and joy filling me to bursting. No matter how many times the flash goes off, you couldn’t rip the smile from my lips. And there’s no doubt which picture is my favorite.