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Read an Excerpt From The Strange

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Read an Excerpt From The Strange

Since Anabelle’s mother left for Earth to care for her own ailing mother, her days in New Galveston have been spent at school and her nights at her laconic father’s…

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Published on March 10, 2023

1931, New Galveston, Mars: Fourteen-year-old Anabelle Crisp sets off through the wastelands of the Strange…

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Nathan Ballingrud’s The Strange, the story of one girl’s quest for revenge amidst a spent and angry world—out from Saga Press on March 21st.

1931, New Galveston, Mars: Fourteen-year-old Anabelle Crisp sets off through the wastelands of the Strange to find Silas Mundt’s gang who have stolen her mother’s voice, destroyed her father, and left her solely with a need for vengeance.

Since Anabelle’s mother left for Earth to care for her own ailing mother, her days in New Galveston have been spent at school and her nights at her laconic father’s diner with Watson, the family Kitchen Engine and dishwasher as her only companion. When the Silence came, and communication and shipments from Earth to its colonies on Mars stopped, life seemed stuck in foreboding stasis until the night Silas Mundt and his gang attacked.


 

 

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.

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The Strange
The Strange

The Strange

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.

 

Excerpted from The Strange, copyright © 2023 by Nathan Ballingrud.

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