“Cup and Table” is my favorite of Tim Pratt’s stories–and it has a lot of competition. To explain how much competition, let me tell an anecdote about the audio magazine I used to edit, PodCastle.
I was no longer on staff when this happened, but at one point, the editors I who took over after I left received a letter. That letter complained of how many stories about lesbians were in the magazine, arguing that PodCastle should just be called LesbianCastle. One of the editors deviously ran the numbers and found that, proportionally, they did not actually run that many stories about lesbians. However, they did run a surprisingly high percentage of Tim Pratt stories. A percentage that, in fact, exceeded the percentage of stories about lesbians. He suggested that they call themselves PrattCastle instead.
By the time those events occurred, I was gone and many other stories by Tim Pratt had been bought by successive editors. But I did publish my share, including an audio version of this one.
I greatly admire Tim Pratt and his ability to write swift, smart prose that flows fast through action that seems unpredictable, and yet is often perfectly crafted. “Cup and Table” is emblematic of how smart his fiction can be. I also recommend his collection Hart & Boot.
“Sigmund stepped over the New Doctor, dropping a subway token onto her devastated body. He stepped around the spreading shadow of his best friend, Carlsbad, who had died as he’d lived: inconclusively, and without fanfare. He stepped over the brutalized remains of Ray, up the steps, and kept his eyes focused on the shrine inside. This room in the temple at the top of the mountain at the top of the world was large and cold, and peer as he might back through the layers of time—visible to Sigmund as layers of gauze, translucent as sautéed onions, decade after decade peeling away under his gaze—he could not see a time when this room had not existed on this spot, bare but potent, as if only recently vacated by the God who’d created and abandoned the world.
Sigmund approached the shrine, and there it was. The cup. The prize and goal and purpose of a hundred generations of the Table. The other members of the Table were dead, the whole world was dead, except for Sigmund.
He did not reach for the cup. Instead, he walked to the arched window and looked out. Peering back in time he saw mountains and clouds and the passing of goats. But in the present he saw only fire, twisting and writhing, consuming rock as easily as trees, with a few mountain peaks rising as-yet-untouched from the flames. Sigmund had not loved the world much—he’d enjoyed the music of Bach, violent movies, and vast quantities of cocaine—and by and large he could have taken or left civilization. Still, knowing the world was consumed in fire made him profoundly sad.
Sigmund returned to the shrine and seized the cup—heavy, stone, more blunt object than drinking vessel—and prepared to sip.”
Illustration by Galen Dara at Lightpseed Magazine. Read here.