Runner-up for Nebula, for Her Short Story of 1978.
Introducing a female writer as “the lovely and talented Whatever-her-name-may-be” is enough to get a person lynched in some circles–and, when you come to think of it, rightly so. (Does anyone ever introduce a male writer as “the debonair and talented Isaac Asimov”? Only in dreams.) But what do you do when the person is certifiably handsome, and uncommonly so, and female to boot? And uncommonly intelligent, amiable and gifted as well? No further description is necessary. I have just introduced C. J. Cherryh, and need only add that not only was she runner-up for a Nebula in the short-story category: but she was runner-up as well in the novel category with her fine The Faded Sun: Kesrtth.
They grew unbearable here.
Alis felt for the door of the flat and knew that it would be solid. She could feel the cool metal of the knob amid the flames… saw the shadow-stairs through the roiling smoke outside, clearly enough to feel her way down them, convincing her senses that they would bear her weight.
Crazy Alis. She made no haste. The fires burned steadily. She passed through them, descended the insubstantial steps to the solid ground–she could not abide the elevator, that closed space with the shadow-floor, that plummeted down and down; she made the ground floor, averted her eyes from the red, heatless flames.
A ghost said good morning to her… old man Willis, thin and transparent against the leaping flames. She blinked, bade it good morning in return–did not miss old Willis’ shake of the head as she opened the door and left. Noon traffic passed, heedless of the flames, the hulks that blazed in the street, the tumbling brick.
The apartment caved in–black bricks falling into the inferno, Hell amid the green, ghostly trees. Old Willis fled, burning, fell–turned to jerking, blackened flesh–died, daily. Alis no longer cried, hardly flinched. She ignored the horror spilling about her, forced her way through crumbling brick that held no substance, past busy ghosts that could not be troubled in their haste.
Kingsley’s Cafe stood, whole, more so than the rest. It was refuge for the afternoon, a feeling of safety. She pushed open the door, heard the tinkle of a lost bell. Shadowy patrons looked, whispered.
The whispers troubled her. She avoided their eyes and their presence, settled in a booth in the corner that bore only traces of the fire.
WAR, the headline in the vender said in heavy type. She shivered, looked up into Sam Kingsley’s wraithlike face.
“Coffee,” she said. “Ham sandwich.” It was constantly the same. She varied not even the order. Mad Alis. Her affliction supported her. A check came each month, since the hospital had turned her out. Weekly she returned to the clinic, to doctors who now faded like the others. The building burned about them. Smoke rolled down the blue, antiseptic halls. Last week a patient ran–burning–
A rattle of china. Sam set the coffee on the table, came back shortly and brought the sandwich. She bent her head and ate, transparent food on half-broken china, a cracked, fire-smudged cup with a transparent handle. She ate, hungry enough to overcome the horror that had become ordinary. A hundred times seen, the most terrible sights lost their power over her: she no longer cried at shadows. She talked to ghosts and touched them, ate the food that somehow stilled the ache in her belly, wore the same too-large black sweater and worn blue shirt and grey slacks because they were all she had that seemed solid. Nightly she washed them and dried them and put them on the next day, letting others hang in the closet. They were the only solid ones.
She did not tell the doctors these things. A lifetime in and out of hospitals had made her wary of confidences. She knew what to say. Her half-vision let her smile at ghostfaces, cannily manipulate their charts and cards, sitting in the ruins that had begun to smolder by late afternoon. A blackened corpse lay in the hall. She did not flinch when she smiled good-naturedly at the doctor.