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‘Learning Letters’, by Carrie Vaughn

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Illustration: Joeprachatree / Adobe Stock

io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Learning Letters” by Carrie Vaughn. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!


Learning Letters

Enid sat on the front porch of Haven’s clinic with a half a dozen books, some paper, and a small chalkboard. Three days a week, when she was in town, she taught reading to Haven’s children who wanted to learn. The last two weeks, Rose was the only kid who came to the lessons.

Her household’s daughter, Rose, eight years old, stared at her while wearing a resentful frown that begged to be allowed to do anything else at all in the whole world but this. She had apples to pick, chickens to chase, mending to do, and a million other things to learn. She was only here because Olive made her, because it would hurt Enid’s feelings if Rose didn’t sit here and suffer.

They stared at one another, at an impasse. Difficult, teaching someone who didn’t want to learn.

“This is important,” Enid said, wanting her entreaty to be its own argument.

“But why do we have to do this every day.” A complaint, not a question.

“It’s not every day.” Enid couldn’t keep the frustration out of her voice. “Because you have to practice if you want to get good at it.”

The glare deepened, offense at the suggestion that Rose wanted to get good at this. She was a quiet girl, generally calm and polite. But it sometimes made her a wall, impossible to cajole or argue with.

This is our tool to save the world, Enid wanted to explain. Reading was the only reason people had saved anything at all, from before the Fall. She didn’t say it because she knew the counter argument: we have all we need, and there are a million things to learn more important than reading, to keep us all alive.

Enid wanted to save reading, and was beginning to doubt that she could. Investigators needed to read and write, to keep records and study their cases. But everyone else? Debatable.

“I’m sorry,” Rose said finally in a small voice.

That melted Enid. “Oh sweetheart, don’t be. We’re both a bit frustrated. We’ll work it out.”

Rose tried on a smile and nodded.

“Enid! Enid, you’re needed!” The shout came up the road, someone running toward the clinic.

Some days Enid would leap at the call—yes, of course, she would help with anything. This day, she was tired and not particularly looking forward to learning what this was about. Did they need her as another resident of Haven, or did they need an investigator? Or did they need her, specifically, because this problem, whatever it was, fit her specialty as an investigator. She hadn’t meant to develop a specialty. She hadn’t wanted to become an expert in death; it had just happened. It had been necessary, whether she liked it or not. Like learning to read.

Rose perked up at the call. “Can I come with you?”

Ah, now she was interested. “Let’s see what it’s about, first.”

Enid rose to meet the man. Alin, twenty-five, had a broad strong frame; he was a young farmer who worked the lands belonging to Red Sunrise household. He must have run the whole way.

“What is it?” Enid asked.

He pointed back. “There’s a stranger come.”

This shouldn’t have been a problem that needed her. Strangers came all the time, folk from the wild or traveling from some distant part of the Coast Road. Why the panic? “Something special about this stranger?”

“Yeah,” he said, trying and failing to catch his breath. “Yeah! They flew! They flew here, Enid!”


Enid had read about airplanes.

She speculated that somewhere in the world must still have working airplanes, or gliders, or something. Maybe not the big fuel-guzzling monsters from before the Fall, but something small. Wouldn’t surprise her to learn airplanes still flew, somewhere. They’d just never come here before.

Well, now one had.

Enid fetched her staff and brown tunic, in case she needed the authority of an investigator, and started to follow Alin out to the pasture where he said the craft had landed.

“Can I come?” Rose begged, hanging on Enid’s arm.

“I think you’d better not, till I’ve looked at things first.”

Rose made a complaining whine, and Enid felt the littlest start of a stab in her heart. What if Rose wanted to become an investigator? Why did that fill her with so much foreboding? She wanted better for her girl. Not a life filled with intractable problems.

Enid hugged her close, and Rose’s arms tightened around her, just right. “Run home and see what chores need doing and I’ll bring back the gossip, bien?”

“Okay.” She ran off.

Alin trotted off, and Enid jogged to keep up. They reached the pasture in maybe half an hour, and Enid stared at what she saw there.

The craft had landed in a field cropped by sheep or goats that had moved on. Its wheels had left tracks of crushed grass behind it; it must have rolled for a couple hundred yards before coming to a stop. It had an enclosed cabin, longer than a typical car. Wheels underneath connected by struts. And wings, straight out like a child holding up her arms when she ran, just to feel the air run over them. Metal barrels were anchored to the struts under the wings.

Colored mostly white with some trim painted in red, it was bright, easy to see. The wings were flat, stretched on either side—not completely straight, they had a teardrop curve to the cross section, part of the physics that allowed for flight to happen. Or so Enid had read. The craft’s tail brought to mind the way birds flexed and spread their feathers when they landed. An artificial bird. Enid had seen pictures but this was immediate, an undeniable presence.

“Did you see it land?” she asked Alin.

“Yeah. Never heard anything like it. Scattered the goats all over. It sailed over, smooth as a boat on water. Then touched the ground, bounced a little, and here it is. Hasn’t moved since and I came to get you.”

None of them had ever heard a fuel-driven internal combustion engine before. Auntie Kath, the last of them who remembered, who recorded the early days of Haven in a series of journals, hadn’t written much about the sound of engines, but she had written about what to her had seemed an uncanny silence when they all went still.

“You didn’t stay and talk to the driver?”

“Was scared to,” he admitted. “What else might they have in there?”

On one hand she was thrilled—to be present for events like this was half the reason she’d become an investigator. The sense of discovery was profound. On another hand . . . what did it mean? She felt it couldn’t be good, or Alin wouldn’t have come get her.

Through the windows at the front of the craft, a figure was visible. A shadow, moving, adjusting something. Then he waved. A normal man, it seemed. A head on lanky shoulders, two arms. Nothing to be scared of. Enid waved back, and Alin gave an uncertain growl.

Others of Alin’s household had gathered on the path above the pasture to watch. They hefted rakes and scythes, and this made Enid grouchy.

“There’s no need for that, I think,” she said, touching a wrist to lower the would-be weapon.

“But what do they want?”

“I’ll find out, won’t I?” Why Enid should speak to the stranger instead of someone else wasn’t entirely clear to her. As was often the case, she was the person standing in the place of the job that needed doing.

She had dealt with murderers and wild folk—who were not the same thing, she pointed out whenever she could. All the murderers she had ever met were Coast Road folk. Those on the Coast Road liked to think well of themselves, but murder still happened, and it was a basic truth she’d thought a lot about over the years. Sometimes people lashed out, and most of them carried tools that could also be weapons. No need for the strange, foreign technology Alin was afraid of.

The man was now exiting the craft. A door swung open, legs reached for the ground.

“Be careful!” Alin urged.

“Tell you what, you can run back to town if anything bad happens.”

“That seems . . . not useful.”

Enid smiled wryly and shrugged. It was what they had. Alin bounced on his feet a little as if ready to run. Enid was thinking that this man wouldn’t have landed his plane in the open for all to see and then stepped out of it alone if he’d meant them harm.

He waited. He was about her age, his skin deep tan, his beard trimmed. He was smiling, his eyes alight. Tall, well fed, and that told her something about where he’d come from. That was what she most wanted to know: where had he come from? Some place that still refined oil, and why would they?

He had a long metal shaft slung over one shoulder, tucked under his arm. She’d read about this as well. A rifle, an old-style weapon using gun powder and projectiles. Well, he wasn’t pointing at anyone yet, was he? She had an idea that this would be like dealing with coyotes; stay confident, don’t show fear. Pretend you were bigger and stronger. She approached with a studied lack of concern.

He raised a hand, a universal signal, and she stopped. He didn’t have a mean face; his expression was open, and he wore a smile. But she wasn’t sure she could judge a stranger from so far afield by his expression. He was well put together in tough trousers and a leather jacket, sturdy boots, and gloves. He stood with confidence, a man used to facing uncertainty. He might not even see her staff as a weapon. They regarded each other, and she couldn’t guess what she looked like to him, if she was what he expected. She had on a loose shirt and pants under her tunic, leather shoes. She wondered if he would know what the color of the tunic meant.

“Hola,” she called finally.

He answered with a quick, heavily accented sentence that she didn’t understand at all. She was pretty sure they were speaking the same language; she was right on the edge of understanding. His way of speaking was simply odd.

He caught her wince and tried again. Sounding each word, making them distinct. “Hi. I’m lookin’ for someone. Help, can you?”

He spoke in round vowels and clipped ends. The Coast Road had different accents, the folk in the south speaking quicker, the folk in the north more drawling. This was something else.

“Don’t know, but I can try,” Enid said, just as slow, wondering if she sounded as strange to him. He had come here because he knew where here was. He must know something about this region, she thought. “Where did you come from?” She hoped she sounded friendly and curious rather than accusatory.

“Nwalk,” was what it sounded like he said.

“Say again?”

“New York.”

East. Far. Three thousand miles? She wouldn’t have thought the little airplane could travel that far, but she knew nothing about airplanes. Maybe it was a nothing trip for someone who could fly.

“How long did that take?”

He chuckled a little, and she tamped down annoyance. Was he laughing at her ignorance, or something else?

“Long time,” he said. “Guess it took thirty years, countin’ from the start.”

This seemed so odd, she wasn’t sure she understood him. She kept getting distracted by the airplane, her gaze shifting to the craft’s sleek lines, the smooth surface.

He asked a question, and she shook her head. “Slower, please.”

“Ever see one before?”

“No. What is New York, that you still have this, and the fuel for it?”

“There’s a few around,” he said. “And cars. A refinery running in the south. Not much left that’ll run on the fuel though. You got no cars, then?”

“Solar,” she said. “What we have runs on solar batteries.”

He gave a little ah of understanding, so she wouldn’t have to explain. But he seemed confused, as if he had expected a different answer.

She gestured over her shoulder. “Why don’t you come up to the town, we can have a bite and drink?”

He shook his head. “Best to keep a distance, I’ve found.” He was getting easier to understand, now that she knew what to listen for. “I might be carrying bugs your folk can’t fight off. Or that I can’t.”

Spoken like someone whose ancestors had lived through plagues.

“We’re vaccinated against most of the bad ones,” she said. “Flu, measles, and the like.”

Now he tilted his head. “You have vaccines?” Spoken in the same tone she had asked about the fuel, as something lost and wondrous.

“Yeah,” she said. “Probably smart then, keeping a distance. We can still talk. Who are you looking for?”

“Kathy Lane. She would be very, very old now.”

Enid hadn’t expected to know the name, but she did, and she was surprised by the tears that sprang into her eyes.

Noting those tears, he stepped forward. “Oh God, you know her.” He apparently hadn’t expected her to know the name either.

“Oh yes. But she died. Years ago. You know she died, right? She was ancient when I knew her.”

“Yes, yes. Of course. But . . . I promised someone.”

“Oh, friend, that is a story I want to hear. I’m Enid.”

“I’m Ed. I have a letter. Can you read?”

“Yes,” Enid breathed. “Yes, I can.”

He stepped forward, put it on the ground halfway between them, and retreated.


It was from Auntie Kath’s brother, dated thirty years earlier. Enid noted that New York used the same dates the Coast Road did, carrying forward the system from before the Fall. At least she assumed they had carried forward the same, and hadn’t gotten off track. Something to check later. The paper was brittle, but the ink still bold. Ed had stored it between leather-wrapped boards, like an old book, and kept it out of the sun to preserve it. Auntie Kath had written about her brother, Eddie, who’d gone away for school. He lost contact when everything fell apart, and she always wondered what had happened to him. She assumed he had died and hoped he hadn’t. It was a story that played out a million times in those days, with all those who couldn’t get home, or who died, their people never knowing.

But Eddie Lane had written a letter and sent it on with someone who cared enough to actually try to deliver it, even thirty years too late. It was wondrous.

Dear Mom and Dad and Kath. I’m sorry I couldn’t get home.

Maybe I should have tried harder to find you. But you must know—if you’re still around, I’m sure you know that things got weird. Things got hard. And I had a lot to keep me here. A partner, a family. I wish you could meet Alysha. Our children are beautiful. I can’t regret staying for that.

The letter went on to describe a community of sorts, built up on a farm with barely enough food and not quite enough of anything else. Eddie had a partner, they had children, and those children had children, and they had done just what Auntie Kath and her folk on the Coast Road had done: survived, saved what they could. Even if it had turned out different. In the panic of such a time, how did you know what you would need to save?

The letter finished:

I have faith. Stupid faith that something lives on. I just want to see if that’s possible.

All my love,

Eddie

Enid had read Kath’s journals a dozen times. Her brother’s handwriting was sharper. His letters had firm starts and ends, with none of the flourishes Kath had used. But Enid thought she could see some similarities, the same turns of phrase, the same way of speaking. They had the same accent. They had both worked on saving what they could. He’d had a good life, was what he wanted his family to know. But he regretted. He must have thought he was writing to a ghost.

Letter delivered, or as near as it could be. There were old folk in Haven who’d known Kath better who would want to read this. Enid started to set the letter back on the ground, but Ed waved her back. “It’s yours.”

This would go into the archives, oh yes. “How did you know to come here?”

“I found their house, in the ruins of Elay.” Enid took a moment to parse this—he was talking about the big city to the south, all in ruins for decades now, most of it swallowed up when the seas rose and the river came back. Cities fell apart when there was no one to look after them. According to Kath, she’d fled with friends of her parents who were doctors. They’d come here, to Haven, which had been a clinic even then. This was where it had all started.

Her parents had died in the Fall. Eddie couldn’t have known.

Ed went on, “She’d put a note for him on the door, all covered in plastic. Told where she’d gone. It was still there.”

Enid’s tears fell fast now, and she put her hand over her eyes.

“What does it mean,” she asked. “To do this thing for people who are dead?”

“He was my grandfather. I promised him I’d try. Just wanted to know.” He laughed a little. “Didn’t think I’d ever really find her but thought the trip was worth doing.”

Valuable, despite the resources. No committee would have ever put the resources toward such a journey.

“I thought . . .” he started, hesitating. “I thought I would find more here.”

“More of what?”

She watched him struggle with what to say. “Towns, roads, cars. Airplanes. Just . . . more. This is all farms. Everything I saw flying over is farms and tiny little towns. There’s nothing left.”

This “nothing” was her whole world, a civilization that three generations had worked to build and maintain. She almost asked him how many babies had died of measles where he came from.

“Auntie Kath, the people with her, made choices. They took care of each other and that mattered, I think. Whatever the world looks like now.” Whatever he thought it looked like.

“My grandfather thought . . . he felt sure something more would have survived, if he could just get back here.”

“Something more than what?” Enid asked. What more could someone ask for?

He looked away, fingering the stock of the rifle over his shoulder. No thoughts of using it, she was sure. Just . . . thinking. Would he trade the weapon, the airplane, for never having a child die of measles?

Maybe.

She said, “Nobody remembers that world. Your grandfather made you hang on to it when it’s got no use anymore.”

“Somebody’s got to remember.”

“Question for you.” Asking questions was familiar, and the whole situation seemed to slip into a better place. Just another investigation. “Did your grandfather think Kath would come to look for him, if she’d been able to?” Had he wondered why she never tried?

“Was his job, to look for her.” Straightforward, no confusion at all. They’d never even wondered, as if they didn’t expect anyone from here to leave their good life.

Enid smiled wryly, making some guesses. “He still thought of her as a child. His little sister. You should know that Kath was the spine of this town her whole life. She grew into something other than what your grandfather remembered. The whole world did. Kath was the last of us who remembered, and we loved her.”

“So was my granddad.”

This was a symmetry that messy life rarely offered, and Enid was glad to be here to see it. “She would have been very pleased to know you, Ed.”

“She have kids?”

“Not biological. But she helped raise us all, in a way. That counts more, don’t you think?”

He winced as if confused. “How do you bind yourselves together, if not by blood?”

She wanted to know what he meant by binding. In Haven they had households, towns, communities. Rose had four parents, and the whole town if she needed them. Enid worried about her, but not that she wouldn’t be taken care of. The resources they shared—that made the link between them. Ed seemed to mean something different, some subtle assumption behind the word. Binding could be a strength. It could also mean a restriction.

“We’re all bound by blood, we think. All of us. We stand or fall together.” She said this fiercely.

His gaze turned inward. She would have been happy to explain, if he had asked. But since he didn’t offer an invitation, she refrained.


Ed stayed for only three days. He came to the edge of the town to see for himself. To let people get a look at him. He saw the roads, good houses, farms, workshops. To Enid’s eyes, Haven was healthy and thriving. She would have shown him the whole Coast Road if he’d been inclined. They fed him, and he expressed gratitude. After that first meeting, the rifle went back in the plane and didn’t come out again. Ed kept his opinions to himself, which was probably for the best.

Then he said he had to leave.

“You come all this way just to go back?” But Enid hadn’t expected him to stay, not really.

“Folk used to do it all the time, before. I’ve got family. They’ll want to hear the story.”

“We don’t have fuel,” Enid said. “I hope you weren’t counting on us having fuel for you, to get you home.”

“Brought my own.” The barrels strapped under the plane, ah yes. He’d wanted to find more here, but he hadn’t really expected it. “But I still don’t understand how it is you have medicines but not fuel.”

Back then, they weren’t thinking about where to go next. They were thinking about day to day. Kath wrote about when the potatoes all died and they didn’t know what they were going to eat. Once they got eating sorted, they thought about how to make sure this never happened again. How to make sure their children could eat.

Back in the pasture, she once again studied the plane, trying to memorize the shape of it, so she could pass on the story.

In turn, Ed studied her. “Do you want maybe to come back with me? See my home for yourself?”

She hesitated. For just a moment, she actually hesitated and thought about it. She was so, so curious, and seeing that part of the world seemed a profound bit of knowledge, if not a necessary one. In her younger days she had traveled to see as much as she could. She was one of only a handful who had traveled the length of the Coast Road. Folk from the Coast Road had traveled to the Rocky Mountains, east, north to the rainforests, and to the badlands to the south. At least, that was how far folks had traveled and come back.

If some had traveled farther, they hadn’t come back from it.

She could travel far, farther than anyone. Except she couldn’t, not really.

“I’m needed here.” But to fly, even once . . . She didn’t ask. She didn’t need it.

Before he left, she brought two presents. One, a vial of measles vaccine the clinic agreed it could spare, out of a sense of goodwill, along with a syringe, needle, and instructions. He mostly seemed amused by this, and Enid wondered if the gift would be wasted. The second thing was a book, very old by their standards, a cloth-bound journal. Ed opened it, handling it carefully, turning pages gently, respecting its age.

She explained, “It’s Auntie Kath’s first journal, the one she kept when she first came to Haven. It’s the one where she talks the most about your grandfather. If you want to get to know her, this one’s probably the best.”

This gift seemed to shock him. “It’s too precious, I can’t.”

“It’ll help you understand.”

“Well. Thank you.”

He gave Enid maps copied from his own charts. A bit of knowledge in trade. Trading was definitely something they both understood. Enid planned a few days to compare them to the maps saved in their archives that hadn’t been updated in almost a hundred years.

When Ed left, half the town lined up on the road to watch the plane take off.

The engine roared, growled, pounding the air. The sound was shocking. Some of them covered their ears. The thin waft of smoke, the burning smell of it, sent an irrational spike of fear through Enid—this was a remnant of what had brought down the previous world. They had been taught to fear it, as if it were a distant monster.

The plane raced forward, crushing grass, and lifted, appearing unbelievably light, rising into the air like it was made of nothing, and they watched the entire time. When the engine was a muted muttering, the pale vehicle just a spot of movement disappearing into blue sky, Enid and Rose—of course Rose had come to watch—turned back to the road to go home.

“You can tell the story forever, about how the airplane came to Haven,” Enid said.

“Are you going to write it down?”

“Yeah, I expect I will.”

Rose seemed to be thinking hard about this, and Enid held her breath. “So people can read it a long time from now.”

After she was gone, after there was no one left who remembered. Enid wasn’t sure Rose made the connection, that a long time also meant, after we’re all dead. She tread carefully. “That’s right.”

“Hmm.” Rose took her hand and they walked in thoughtful silence.

Enid hoped, as always.


About the Author

Carrie Vaughn’s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series, over twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent novel, Questland, is about a high-tech LARP that goes horribly wrong and the literature professor who has to save the day. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com.


Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2023 issue, which also features work by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe, Sharang Biswas, Octavia Cade, Marie Brennan, Adam-Troy Castro, Sam J. Miller, Paul Crenshaw, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition via the link below.

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