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by Helen Stubbs

Headlines flashed orange on the furnace’s coal: Newborn Bubble To Shoot Through Vicinity.

Quindrebel turned at the poke in her rib. “Three months, you got.” The crone’s single eye shone in her charcoal face. The other eye-socket was a thatch-worked scar.

“Three months to what, Nan?” Quindrebel squinted up the chimbley.

“Waste down to nothin’ that’ll fit out that flue. Save yer pumpkin for the methane to drive you up to the sky. Bribe a keeper for an upgrade — mutate a cart-rat into a rocket-pilot.”

“Bribe ’em with what?”

“Whate’er yer got.” Nan winked her one eye for all her worth. That weren’t much. Keepers threatened to grate her for rat food every ’nspection. Grate her with their cold scales and freeze her juices with their chill, then crunch that red ice atween their fangs. Seen it happen.

That circle of night in the flue was infinity away. Reckoned it stretched forever. “Then what?”

“Catch that Bubble. Start yer ain world—like yer mother ained this place afore she dead.”

Quindrebel sank down, elbows digging into her knees. “Where’d I even start?”

“This,” Nan said, slipping a glass ball into her hand. “I never made it out the chimbley. But I ain’t had naine to help me.”

* * *

Quindrebel squeezed her daily pumpkin into the liquid ball. It sealed like magic, expanding then compacting its innards. When the keepers slithered past, lashing at her with their tails, she knelt and whispered, ignoring the sliming touch of the grinners, and begging the one who delivered her down here and patted her that sad day, when her mother died and the man showed his true self.

“Can ye get me a cart-rat pilot-upgrade?” Quindrebel clutched the icy claw in her hand. The keeper flicked her off, hissed and barred her fangs. She slithered into shadow. No use.

The furnace burned Quindrebel’s face as she shovelled coal into its insatiable gut; burned her arse as she scrubbed the chimbley when the fire lazed and the roar of the pipes below the clay were hushed. A keeper grabbed her leg, snatched her down and she landed hard, pain shooting up her back with dread of the cold touch-over. She breathed shaky as it frisked her — checking her pockets, set to rob her of hope and everythin’ and dignity.

It slithered away and she hauled herself up. Nan’s bottle were still clipped to her belt and tucked inside her trouser. In her pocket the chip fell between her fingers. The rat upgrade!

New headlines arrived in the embers. Competition to capture the newborn Bubble reaches fevered temps. She’d bet it weren’t equal to the heat of the furnace.

Quindrebel never knew what was false and what was real in the news. She kicked a stack of coal balls that rolled into the fire and caught, then slumped down and cradled her bruised foot.

“Glass into gear and start climbing,” Nan whispered. “Won’t see me again, whether you’re up and away, or burn to death in there.” Nan stared up at the circle of sky, her mouth a gaping flue.

“I’ll never make it.”

“But you’ll be gone and nothin’ wasted. I’ll pick your black bones clean of flesh if you roast.”

“Cannibal,” Quindrebel muttered, and pulled Nan’s stinking frame in close, her hair a bitter tangle that stuck to her lips.

“Save your gas for the vertical climb. Trust yer pilot.”

Quindrebel clipped the bottle to her belt, opaque with orange gas. If a keeper caught her she’d be scale-whipped, slime-lashed and grated for rat food.

She glared into the heat of the flames, squatted and whistled a rat near. He whiskered towards her and she plucked out the chip from the back of his neck. Limp. Clipped his collar to her belt near the bottle and inserted the pilot upgrade. He blinked at her, bright-eyed and ready to fly.

Quindrebel took hold of the finger and footholds, climbed up the smoke stack wall, singeing her hands because the wall was hot from high fires. If she’d known this was gunna happen she’d’ve fuelled the fire less. They’d be on to ya, Nan’s wisdom said.

Her fingers bled by the time she made it to the mouth of the narrow pipe which looked narrower than her shoulder-width. She was never gunna fit through.

Ashrickah! A keeper’s alarm call shrieked, then a scream from Nan. Icy black tendrils lashed up at Quindrebel. One stung her ankle, snaked up her trouser. She kicked her leg and screamed, then the leg went numb.

She had to do something, and glanced around. The rat-pilot was her only hope. She struck the bottle’s wick against the wall and it flared into flame. The rat leapt onto the burning ball, steering her flight by angling the jet, forcing her into the tunnel. Shock: she fit.

It burned the tendril with the fire. The keeper shrieked again and retracted its hold, then lashed higher to shatter Quindrebel’s bottle. The gas exploded in her hands, but she reached up and caught the top of the flue, ignoring the pain. The rat leapt off and attacked the tendril — what a defensive program!

Quindrebel reached higher and a glowing ball blinded her. She reached into it and it caught her, sucked her in, coated her in protective light. She’d caught the Bubble. It was hers! Impossible luck.

“A rope,” she told the Bubble as it expanded to swallow her, landscape and architecture unfurling far above, accessing and embellishing her wishes, stunted as they were.

Mustn’t steal from an established Bubble, the sky warned her.

“Not stealing,” she whispered, forcing the rope down to the furnace where Nan slashed defensively at the injured keeper but five were closing in on her from behind.

“Keep me safe, I’m going down.” Quindrebel swan-dived, holding the rope, spreading her defensive light over Nan.

Quindrebel wrapped her rope around her waist and held her tight. “About bloody time,” Nan said. “Let’s go.”

* * *

Helen Stubbs lives on the Gold Coast of Australia. She writes stories that are dark with pointy edges. Some have been published in anthologies and magazines, including Subtropical Suspense, Next, Midnight Echo, and Winds of Change. In 2010 she won the Worldcon amateur short story competition. She’s an interviewer for Galactic Chat and tweets @superleni. You can also find her at her blog.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories? 
My ideas come from everywhere. What I'm reading, watching, what happens in the news and my real life, and sometimes from misunderstandings (both my own and other people's). I often write for themed anthologies, too, and to do that I start thinking about what is required and go of on a tangent from there. Quindrebel was inspired by Cinderella and subverting the trope that old ugly women are evil or expendable.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers? 
Read as much as you can and pay close attention to how work getting published now is constructed, yet write what you feel like writing, and don't be afraid to push the boundaries. Edit your work thoroughly and let it rest for a couple of weeks and then read it again to see if it really communicates what you thought it did. Swap stories with fellow writers for ideas on how to improve each other's work. Get involved in a fantasy or speculative fiction writing and fan community, both online and/or face to face. Also, support independent venues for publication such as small publishers and magazines, because they are wonderful.