BOOK REVIEW: Corporate Gunslinger by Doug Engstrom

written by David Steffen

Corporate Gunslinger is a science fiction action/drama novel by Doug Engstrom premiering this week with Harper Voyager. Full disclosure: Doug has been a friend for years and is a member of the same small writing group as me, this review was based on an advanced reader copy from the publisher.

Kira is deeply in debt, so deeply that she has decided to sign a contract to become a gunslinger who settles disputes for a major corporation by representing them in good-old-fashioned gun duel (albeit with science fictional tweaks to the format). The story takes place in a sadly-plausible future United States where this is the norm. She must fulfill her contract to make enough money to have a chance of paying off her debt. The alternative is worse: lifelong debt slavery enforced by a chip that makes sure she is always under their control.

Kira is not the fastest, nor the most accurate, but she is working hard to get better at both, and her background gives her an edge that others don’t have. She was a theater major hoping to make it big and she intends to use this the best she can to better understand her opponents and convey the persona she wishes to convey. If she wants to stay alive and in control of her own life she has to find a way to win matches and live with herself afterward.

This story is dark and not for the light-hearted, but I think that it is a glimpse at a future we would better avoid. Kira is a relatable protagonist though she is pressed into doing terrible things on behalf of her corporate employer to save herself. It is no lighthearted book but it is compelling and Kira is easy to root for in her seemingly impossible situation. I quite enjoyed it and am happy to recommend it.

Corporate Gunslinger’s official release date is June 16, 2020. I hope you check it out!

DP FICTION #63A: “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” by Jason Kimble

Content Warning: Domestic Violence

Max found the box that fit absolutely everything when he was clearing space for Roderick to move in. They had agreed he’d pare down to a single bookshelf, so he drove by the local rental place and bought a half dozen boxes.

By the end of the first round, he’d cleared half of one bookshelf. There were still three and a half more he’d committed to losing. He had enough to start filling boxes, though, and he could use a mental break from the triage.

Max knelt on the super shag and sorted. Hardcovers he only ever bought from the remainder bin by the register. That’s where he met Roderick.

Remaindered just means something big and fancy got overhyped and under-delivered.” Somehow Roderick made derision feel exotic. Enticing.

“Or the people who love it couldn’t cover the cost?” Max said. He felt pinned under the amber of Roderick’s gaze. He didn’t know yet that Roderick’s eyebrows didn’t have a high natural arch, that he was just always judging you.

Roderick shrugged wide shoulders sheathed in stretch cotton.

“I say if you value it, you find a way to pay what it’s worth.” As Roderick’s knuckles brushed the back of Max’s hand, he felt worth more than he had in a long time.

Max stacked the hardcovers — biggest on the bottom — in the box. He could have sworn that alone should fill it, but there was at least half a box empty, so he must have been wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

It took one coffee, two drinks, and one dinner date for Max to give up on the remainder bin. If he couldn’t afford the price, he didn’t want it enough, now did he? Roderick wasn’t fond of the oversized trade paperbacks that took their place.

“They’re all over the place.” His corded forearms wrapped around Max from behind. “I mean, they’re a mess, all different heights and widths and what’s the point of a book shelf if it looks like a junk drawer? It should be precise. Crisp and clean.”

Crisp and clean. Like Roderick. Even when he was trying the scruffy look, he trimmed his stubble every morning to the perfect length for defining his jawline. Max didn’t mind the rug burn he got when they kissed, because kissing, and the rash on his shoulder, reminded him where Roderick rested his chin, the way the bruises on his upper arms reminded him of Roderick’s strong hands.

“Artistic integrity?” Max offered. “This was the way they wanted to present them, so—”

Roderick shook his head.

“Everybody’s got a vision,” he said. “A visionary shapes the world instead of letting everyone else do it for him.”

The trades were a more challenging puzzle to pack, but Max eventually found himself satisfied that he’d not wasted any space in the matrix he shaped atop the hardcovers.

Still half a box to fill. And he’d been so certain this time.

The low-end paperbacks had been in milk crates to begin with.

“If you’re going to keep them, you gotta show off what you have.” Roderick was naked, idly sorting through the crate. His sweat smelled like warm cinnamon and chamomile. Max never smelled like that when he tried Roderick’s cologne. Then again, he always washed it off right after because Roderick hated people touching his stuff.

Roderick’s brows arched past their usual curve, which meant he was judging extra hard.

“These don’t even have front covers,” he said.

“That means they’re well-loved,” Max said, wrapping his arms around Roderick’s bicep and snuggling in.

“It means they’re out of shape and ugly,” Roderick said. Max pulled the sheet up over his belly.  “Or stolen,” Roderick continued, leaning onto Max. He was solid and heavy, but Max found the weight of him comforting. “You know that scam, don’t you? Bookseller tears off the cover for a return and gets a full refund. They’re supposed to get rid of what’s left, but they keep it, the greedy little shits, and sell it ‘used’ to some guy thinks he’s getting a bargain. But I guess if you have them on a shelf, no one can tell since the spine’s intact.”

Max bought the shelves the next day.

The paperbacks slid off the oak (Roderick never would have let him live down pressboard) as well as they had slid on. Max set them in the box, spines up, in an effort to save space. But when all that was done, the paperbacks still didn’t fill anything. Well-creased titles stared up from the bottom of the box. Just as more books did when he cleared another row. And, emboldened, two more. Max picked up the box, which had heft but nothing close to an entire bookshelf’s worth.

He smiled and started tossing books in at random. He kept out his treasured LeGuin and Butler, since after Max’s fangasming, Roderick would notice if they disappeared. Otherwise, he stopped worrying about what went in the box, because it all fit. When he was done, he scrawled his name on the side.

He went to shove the box into the back of his closet, but the floor was already covered with unpaired shoes and old t-shirts and a bin of ratty notebooks, all thrown in the dark when Roderick turned up his beautiful Roman nose at them. Max opened the box and dumped everything in, then slid the cardboard home. That night, Roderick practically swooned.

“I thought we’d be fighting about this for weeks,” Roderick said. Roderick was a big proponent of moving forward. Evolving. Never live in the past, he liked to say.

Max shrugged and smiled and took advantage of Roderick’s alacrity to get him to wear his chaps when they had sex.

The other boxes he’d bought from the rental company didn’t seem to work the same way, so Max exercised their no-questions return policy and got his money back.

Max never told Roderick about the box. Not when Max agreed to clear his old Robot Army toys from the wall shelves so Roderick could use the space for his orchids. Or when they got a plasma screen after Max … lost his balance … during a discussion and cracked the screen on his old tube television. Definitely he didn’t mention it when Roderick insisted a few tiny blood drops from Max’s split lip meant they should replace the quilt his grandmother made.

Expired medication. Cosplay that didn’t fit anymore. The 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Ani-Han Hero Team. Boxed.

The apartment was clean and bright and organized and unblemished the way that kept Roderick content, and Max didn’t stress losing anything because it was all in the box in the back of the closet if he ever needed it.

Max blamed himself for not realizing that, when everything Max had that Roderick didn’t like was finally in the box, the only thing left for Roderick to consider was Max. Cut as Roderick was, Max was never cut enough. He couldn’t box himself, though, and much as he tried, he couldn’t change himself enough to make Roderick happy living with him.

There was more room in the bathroom after that, without the extra gauze and butterfly bandages and the concealer Roderick helped him find that smoothed everything out so you almost didn’t notice bruises, even up close. Max packed away Roderick’s detritus so he wouldn’t have to remember. He couldn’t bring himself to throw any of that away, but he didn’t want to see it anymore. Never live in the past might be a good philosophy, after all.

In the end, it seemed better to move than to stay where he was; he couldn’t seem to pack enough away to really, finally forget Roderick.

Part of Max wished he could pack the whole apartment in the box, so he could pull it back out and live in it again when he was ready. Every roleplay system told you, though, that you couldn’t pack a space inside a space. That was just madness.

There was still plenty to take, and the box held it all. Max had to be a touch more strategic this time. He didn’t want to unpack everything all at once, so he made sure that the main cookware and a few dishes and his toiletries and work clothes were on the top, over everything else. He worried for a moment what might happen if his cologne leaked in transit, but the cardboard seemed to hold scents as well as it did everything else. Had a decent vapor barrier, to boot, so he could take his time washing whatever might need washing on the other side.

Unfortunately, Max wasn’t quite as good at strategic packing as he thought. Once his clothes were out at the new place, he realized he needed the steamer. When everything had been on hangers, and without Roderick to cock his head and ask if it was really good enough, Max hadn’t used the steamer much. Between the folding and the odds and ends piled on top of his clothes, though, even Max noticed how unsightly things were.

Max knew he’d packed it. He’d packed everything. It’s just that he was also certain it was one of the first things he’d thrown in. So much for not everything at once.

Out came the clothes that might fit when Max finally went back to the gym and the bullet blender he was planning to start using and the never-opened sliders he’d intended to attach to the couch feet at the old place for the hardwood. Max hefted the stack of not-all-expired coupons and lobbed a half-empty sunscreen onto the stack of ratty beach towels.

His keys fell into the box as Max’s hand wrapped around the steamer’s handle, because of course they did. They clattered through the layer of baby gates bought for a dog he never brought home. Max swore.

He’d been planning to make copies tomorrow. Max didn’t want to dig any further, but he figured it was a better option than going to the landlord. She’d already given him the side-eye when he showed up with just the one box and some stray furniture. It didn’t sting nearly as badly as Roderick’s disapproval. Still, Max decided to pull out the gates, grab the keys, then slide the gates back into the box and be done for the night.

Except moving the gates shifted the decorative boxes the keys had landed on. Another jangle. Another thing to pull out. And again, when his old cookware that lost its Teflon slid and scooped and dumped the keys down yet further. He tossed aside the curtains with the broken cords. Started yanking things out faster so he could be done with it, but then he was knee deep in winter scarves, sifting after the muffled clink of metal.

They were Roderick’s scarves. Roderick loved scarves. He wrapped his neck in stripes and chevrons and houndstooth and even one with polka dots. Winter opened up a long, woolen set of new decorative options for the world, so Roderick always welcomed the snow. Max rolled each one neatly again and laid them outside the box. The last — a black one with a single, thin pink stripe — he used to borrow from Roderick when he wanted to cover his own neck. It had wriggled one end deeper into the morass. Max had to pull much harder to free it. He worried that the wool wouldn’t come back from the stretching, but as it slipped loose, a flash of metal caught his eye. He looped the scarf around his neck and forgot about worrying.

Max pushed aside the boxer briefs, steadfastly trying not to think about how well they fit Roderick. He tossed aside the chaps. Roderick had only worn them three times since he bought them for him, anyway.

The keys kept eluding him. Max pulled out his phone and tapped the flashlight on as he sifted past every patterned sock in as many color combinations as Roderick had been able to find. Grabbed handfuls of dried Valentine’s Day and anniversary bouquets. Flipped over the frames with pictures of them together. The first time Max went skiing, when he learned how to fall instead of crash. The beach, where Roderick always took on an enviable bronze and smelled like coconut and Max prayed he wouldn’t himself turn into a lobster because every hit hurt worse on a burn.

Max couldn’t tell now if the metal sound was frame or keys as he clattered past pictures of Roderick’s nephew and sisters and the time his mom visited. Accidentally crushed one of the bulbs on the wreath Roderick’s aunt sent him last Christmas. So much stuff, all of it sliding and tilting the wrong way every time Max got close. Until he found the watch.

The third anniversary is supposed to be leather, but given how uninspiring Roderick found the chaps, Max bought a watch. It was a classic windup, the not-kid-stuff kind of retro Roderick could enjoy. The band was the leather bit: custom cut and tanned, hand-stitched. Max had paid extra to get M + R burned into the strap.

The spring wound down long ago. Now, the band was loose. The box did well to keep out moisture, so Roderick was relatively preserved, but time ravaged a body even inside a dry box, it seemed. Roderick’s skin had taken on a sallow tone that made it hard to see the bruises on his neck, but Max could still make out where he’d wrapped the curtain cords. When Roderick’s strong hands throttled him. When the price lurking in the dark sluicing in from the edges of Max’s vision had been a price he wouldn’t pay.

The key ring was hooked on Roderick’s bony thumb. Max picked it up gingerly, afraid to break off a digit. He wasn’t sure he knew how to mask a break on someone else.

Something about the atrophy made Roderick look colder, even wearing that soft sweater Max wanted to lay down and snuggle against. Max took off the scarf he’d draped on himself earlier. Gently wrapped the slightly-stretched black wool with the thin pink stripe around the saggy skin at Roderick’s neck. It covered Roderick’s bruises as well as it had Max’s.

Max cupped Roderick’s cheek in one hand, kissed him on the forehead, and climbed back out of the box. Holiday decorations and picture frames and socks and scarves and underwear and the broken curtains all fit back in the box where they belonged. Where they would always be at hand if Max needed them.

He closed the lid and carried the box upstairs. Slid it in the back of his new closet like he’d had it in the old one. Out of sight was almost like out of mind. One step away. Eventually Max would be ready to move on completely, he was sure.

Not quite yet, though. For now, he thought it best if he steamed the wrinkles from his outfit for work in the morning and called it good. Roderick never could stand to see Max wrinkled.

© 2020 by Jason Kimble

Jason Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it’s warm. He lives there with his finally-legal husband. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, and Speculative Masculinities. You can find more of his nattering at or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.

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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #5: Genghis Khan by Miike Snow

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identiy the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Genghis Khan by Miike Snow, an action/spy movie turned romance.

The film starts with a line of men in military uniforms standing at attention as their commanding officer (who is dressed in military garb also and has a very distinctive metal prosthetic nose) walks past them to the center of the room large concrete room where a man in a bowtie and a tuxedo shirt is strapped to a table with a giant laser mounted on the ceiling pointed directly at him. The scenario calls to mind the third act of a James Bond film where the villain has captured bond and it is just about time for Bond to make his escape, but this time the villain is our protagonist.

And, of course, next is the monologuing, which the villain does to the music, seeming to be in a happily vindictive mood, taking little dancing steps in celebration at the imminent devise of his rival. Only knowing what we have seen so far in the film, the choice of monologuing topic is a bit odd, saying that he “gets a little bit Genghis Khan” and doesn’t want him to “get it on with nobody else but me”. Is there a romantic, or at least sexual, history between these characters? James Bond has certainly had trysts with women villains before in his films, but this could be an interesting new angle to it.

A scientist in a white coat delivers a remote control to our villain, and with great relish from him and great fear from his captive he poises his finger to press the button but is interrupted with a buzzer that announces that it is 5pm, and apparently the supervillain bunker workday is over and it’s time to go home. This is a particularly interesting moment in the film, because clearly he has been looking forward to this moment for a long time, it’s surprising that he would go home just because the clock struck. Perhaps he has felt strongly about work-life balance and it’s important to him that he leave on time and leave his work at the office. Perhaps he gets paid for supervillainy only during his work hours and killing the spy when he’s not getting paid for it would make him a chump in his own reckoning. Perhaps it’s an insurance/worker’s comp thing where he could get in trouble for working outside of working hours. Perhaps his family expects him home at a particular time. In any case, with a roll of his eyes, he heads home, leaving the spy strapped to the table overnight.

At home he is greeted by his lovely wife and his children: a young boy and girl. He smiles when his daughter waves to him, but the manufactured smile quickly slips. As they eat dinner together he stares blankly and his wife seems to notice something is amiss, but doesn’t say anything, and later in bed she is sleeping soundly while he sits up in bed (stilling wearing his uniform) and continues to mull.

The next day, back at the supervillain office, he continues his monologue to the spy again, if anything with more vigor, and his energy seems to be contagious as well, even soldiers passing through the scene say “ooh” along with the song. The laser is powered up again and there seems to be nothing keeping the spy from his doom. But he hesitates, and monologues about wanting to make up his mind but not knowing himself, and instead of pushing the big red “KILL” button he pushes the big green “RELEASE” button.

The spy leaps up from the table and within seconds a squad of soldiers faces him down with automatic weapons, but the villain orders them to let the spy go, and the villain turns away to let the spy make his escape. But, instead of leaving, the spy carries on with the same monologue about not knowing himself, and he turns back, and sees out loud the main monologue again about getting a little bit Genghis Khan. The two join hands, and perform a series of cute pair dance moves together.

Flash forward to a scene at the villain’s home again. This time he has a more genuine smile as the kids come to greet him, and the spy (now in more casual clothes) is just putting dinner on the table. They have happy conversation and they share a romantic look over the table between themselves, and later they are both reading in bed in a quiet and pleasant moment as the villain smiles to himself and everything seems to have ended happily…

Until we see that this bedroom is being surveilled by none other than the villain’s ex-wife, who repeats the mantra about being a little bit Genghis Khan and not wanting him to get it on with “nobody else but me”, and ominous music plays as the film ends.

This one is really interesting and fun in its subversion of the superspy-and-villain nemeses trope. Even if someone hasn’t seen many James Bond films, there are so many parodies and homages that you can’t help to have absorbed some of it, and so it is a clever way to set up a short film. “I know what this is” you say as you see the giant laser, and just a little bit of set-dressing sets up your expectations, before dashing them and going a different direction. Spy movies rarely (if ever) show a villain having a stereotypical family life at home, so that in itself is a new angle on it, and the reversal at the end with a new villain promises potential for a sequel–apparently living with him all these years has taught her some tricks. What role will our erstwhile villain play in the next story? Will he continue his previous villainous ways even though he is happier at home? Or was his happiness at home inextricably tied with his villainy? Has the spy turned his allegiance’s as well, is he exiled from his home country for fraternizing with the enemy, or is this development still a secret from them. I look forward to seeing the sequel to find out!

(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters)

MOVIE REVIEW: The House With a Clock in its Walls

written by David Steffen

The House With a Clock in its Walls is a 2018 fantasy film based on a 1973 book of the same title by John Bellairs.

In 1955, after his parents die in a car crash, ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moves in with his weird uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), and meets the neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). At night he hears a strange ticking in the walls that he can’t find the source of, and as he looks for the source he finds his crazed uncle smashing through a wall with an axe and various objects in the house have taken a life of their own. His uncle confesses he is a warlock, and Florence is a witch, and the clock in the walls is a dark and dangerous secret the previous owner of the house had left there.

This is a fun premise for a movie, and Black as the exuberant and weird uncle, and Blanchett as the kind and interesting neighbor are very good in their roles. I felt that overall it was good, but felt like the final act of the movie was its weakest so it felt like a little bit of a let-down, but it’s still a fun watch, and a good one for the kids.

TV REVIEW: Star Vs. the Forces of Evil Season 1

written by David Steffen

Star Vs. the Forces of Evil is an action comedy cartoon about an interdimensional mage-warrior princess visiting Earth. Season 1 aired on Disney XD between January and September 2015.

Star Butterfly (Eden Sher) is a princess of Mewni, a magical parallel dimension. On her 14th birthday, her parents the king and queen give her the family heirloom magical wand. When she accidentally sets fire to the castle, they send her away to Earth for training. She ends up enrolling at Echo Creek Academy where principal assigns her to pair up with Marco Diaz (Adam McArthur), who has a reputation for being very straight-laced and by-the-book. Soon after Star is attacked for the first time by the monster Ludo (Alan Tudyk) and his gang of henchmonsters who want to steal the wand and she discovers her magical abilities and finds out that it’s also fun kicking monster butt.

Star is fun-loving, impulsive, has a low tolerance for boredom, and gives her everything to everything she decides to do. Marco, in many ways, is very different very careful, nervous, risk-averse, and more likely to talk himself out of doing something than to just dive in as Star would. But they very quickly become best friends, complimenting each other as friends, each acting as a kind of balancing force on the others extreme tendencies. Ludo and his gang of monsters are a recurring element as he continues to try to attain the wand, and Marco and Star work together to fend him off.

Most of the episodes feel largely episodic, small standalone adventures, but many of them do add elements to build backstory for larger arcs, more about Star’s family and the history of Mewni.

A lot of the appeal of the show is the fun drawing style that goes along with Star’s unique and powerful spells like “narwhal blast” and “blueberry cupcake bazooka”, and the writing and voice acting is superb.

And if you like this season, there are three more! Highly recommended, one of my favorite shows.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #4: Run Boy Run by Woodkid

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identiy the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Run Boy Run by Woodkid, a black-and-white fantasy thriller chase.

The first image we see is of an isolated stark white building in the mountains, with a narrow tower that resembles a skyscraper design, though much smaller. The only sound is the deep and resonant ring of a deep church bell. On the third stroke of the bell the visual stillness of the scene is broken as the title character, the boy who is never named, exits the building on the right, sprinting as though his life depends on it.

After the fourth toll of the bell we see the boy much more closely. He is wearing what appears to be a schoolboy’s uniform with short pants, a lapeled jacket, a collared shirt, and a backpack. Even as he runs at an incredible pace, he checks over his shoulder for signs of pursuit and his terror is evident as tears stream down his cheeks. The pounding percussion of the music underscores the urgency, as do the lyrics: “this world is not made for you” and “they’re trying to catch you”. It’s not clear what exactly is pursuing the boy, but with his evident terror and the superhuman effort he is putting into escape, I can’t help but root for him every time I see this. As the film opens, we

He is joined by a pack of crows flying in the same direction, and at first we have to wonder if these are what he is fleeing from, or at least if they are agents of what he is fleeing from. And soon the boy outpaces the flying crows anyway.

After the lyrics say “this race is a prophecy” and “break out from society”, a new creature joins the scene: what appears to be an earth elemental of moss and grass and stone with long pointed horns rises up from the level ground directly under the boy, and the boy falls. The pace of the music slows as the creature rises to its full height from the ground, humanoid and as tall as a tall man, and it appears that everything may be lost; he may have lost the chase. The boy struggles to raise himself back to his feet but before he can the creature scoops him up under its arm (roughly but the roughness appears to be from a sense of urgency rather than malice) and begins running in the same direction the boy had been running.

When the boy has had a moment to catch his breath, the elemental returns the boy to his feet and they run together. Meanwhile the elemental beckons offscreen and soon more and more elementals of a similar size, some that appear to have cattle skulls for heads. The original elemental hands him a sword, and others arm him with a two-horned Viking helmet and a round buckler shield. At this point in the film the boy no longer appears scared–he looks determined and fierce. This support from an unexpected corner has bolstered his courage, though we still have not seen what pursues him.

When the boy leaps from a rock he lifts off up into the clouds before landing safely back among the elementals again–clearly this boy is just beginning to discover his extraordinary abilities, and reveling in his newfound freedom! He beckons to the elementals and yet more of them rise from the ground, and in more variety, ranging from tiny ones that run on all fours, to ever larger and larger that are dressed and armed as warriors and seem to be built of stone and tree trunks. An airship rises in the distance, presumably associated with the rest of these warriors supporting the boy. The boy at this point appears happy for the first time in the film, smiling and joyous and confident.

We see ahead to his destination: a major metropolitan center of immaculate white buildings that recall the style of the building he is running away from, but many more and denser. We see one building with banners flying a sigil of two crossed keys: the symbol of the rulers of the city? The boy finally stops on a rocky promontory with a view of the city and he raises his sword to it, though it’s unclear whether this is a sign that he is saluting it as a sign of safety or home or if he has hostile intent. Are the elementals merely an escort to ensure his safety, or does he plan to lead them in an assault on the city? Why do the elements follow him? Does he have family or friends waiting for him? What is the prophecy that speaks of his escape? At no point in the film do we see his pursuers–is he trying to run away from responsibilities, from becoming a man? Or is there a real pursuer, and what is their intent?

The film ends there with more questions than answers, but in a way that left me hungry for more: I have seen at least one other by Woodkid that seems to tie into the events of this one somehow, with the boy and the sigil of the crossed keys, though I haven’t seen enough to understand the story of this one better–I will try to watch more and give my interpretation as I can!

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be Genghis Khan by Miike Snow)

BOOK REVIEW: Patternmaster by Octavia Butler

written by David Steffen

Patternmaster is a 1976 science fiction novel by Octavia Butler, first book in the publication order of the Patternist series, and the final book chronologically in the storyline.

The story takes place in a distant future where the two dominant groups of humanity are the Patternists (powerful networked telepaths that are the result of selective breeding for telepathic traits) and the clayarks (semi-human creatures created by mutated human DNA altered by an alien plague). The Patternists have long been the dominant group, with their powerful telepathic, telekinetic, and healing abilities (with individuals being stronger at certain abilities), and the clayarks mostly living as roving bands with stolen weapons in the wilderness between defended compounds.

But the order of everything is in jeopardy as the Patternmaster, the most powerful telepath who ties all the rest together, may not have long to live. The clayarks seem to sense the uncertainty and seem to be massing for greater attacks.

The protagonist of the novel is Teray, one of the children of Rayal. With the upcoming succession, assumptions and understanding about the existing order no longer stand and Teray finds himself just trying to find a place to stand in the world that seems to be shifting all around him.

This is the chronological conclusion that the rest of the series was backstory to. Wild Seed is still my favorite but I can see why this spawned the rest of the series–political intrigue between powerful telepaths and their powerful enemies. Well worth a read!

DP FICTION #62B: “On You and Your Husband’s Appointment at the Reverse-Crematorium” by Bill Ferris

You place the urn carefully onto the examination table. The doctor opens the lid, takes a peek inside, sniffs a little. He nods, like he’s evaluating a new blend of coffee, then dumps half of your husband’s cremains into a big metal mixing bowl, the kind they had in the restaurant kitchen you used to work at. He uses a large copper whisk to mix in a bottle of purified water.

Your eyes scan the renovated warehouse where the doctor has set up shop, which doubles as a Pilates studio at night. You ask how many times he’s done this before.

The doctor stops whisking and cracks open a soda can. He says he’s performed this procedure literally dozens of times. Several droplets of Diet Mountain Dew splash into the mixing bowl, but the doctor appears unconcerned. You look for reassurance in the form of laboratory equipment, all of which looks state of the art, judging by the assortment of alembics, vials, and tubes on his table, and the size of the 3D printer, which has been whirring since you arrived, churning out a neon-orange human skull. (The Pontius Pilates T-shirts sold at the front desk also appear to be tastefully designed and a flattering fit.) The doctor resumes whisking, mixing in three cups of plaster of Paris and most of an already-open box of baking soda from the break-room refrigerator. He adds the last of the cremains to the cremixture. With each stroke of the whisk he counts aloud, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. You don’t want to over-beat the batter, he says.

The 3D printer stops, and the doctor remarks on its perfect timing. The skull is the last piece of your husband’s new skeleton. He picks up the skull and examines it like Hamlet pitying Yorick. Think fast, he commands, tossing you the skull. You drop your keys to the table as you grab for the plastic skull. You bobble it, but manage to clamp your hands around it before it hits the floor. The doctor laughs—what fun! You nod as your blood pressure de-escalates out of hypertension. You carefully hand your husband’s skull back to him as he makes the “gimmie-gimmie” gesture. He then wheels a gurney out from behind a curtain, upon which rests a plastic skeleton rendered in lemon yellow, except for the collarbone and left shoulder blade. He had run out of the yellow resin, the doctor says, and used the next closest color to finish up. The hues clash, but God willing, you’ll never see your husband’s candy-corn-colored skeleton again anyway.

He jams the skull onto the spine in a manner resembling, both in physical strain and amount of cursing, the time your husband replaced the front axle of the Hyundai. A loud click makes you think his plastic spine has snapped, but the rapidity with which the doctor extends his hand toward you for a fist bump suggests the skeleton is officially ship-shape.

The doctor startles, realizing he almost forgot an important step. It’s the third important step he’s almost forgotten, but who’s counting? You hand him the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone that will serve as your husband’s new brain, which will regulate all bodily systems, including the Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine that will be his new heart. You were up all night loading photos of you and your husband, the honeymoon, the house, Max the doggo, and your vacation to Colorado that one time into the special Dropbox folder labeled “FRIENDLY_FILE.” You also sprung for Spotify Premium and loaded it with playlists of his favorite songs. And for good measure, you pirated Seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones. The doctor snaps the brain into place, plugging the USB cable into the complex system of wires that snakes through and around the skeleton. Several times he pauses and rewinds a YouTube tutorial on how to wire a drone helicopter to make sure he’s got things right. The doctor sees you looking and reassures you that he’s done this literally dozens of times.

Now it’s time to add the chicken wire. Wrapping it around the bones like he’s taping a sprained ankle, he explains the wire mesh gives the new flesh something to grab onto, like patching a hole in drywall. Most importantly, it functions as a cage for the skeleton. Did you know we’ve all got a spooky skeleton trapped inside us that wants to escape? You point out that this skeleton is plastic. The doctor shakes his head–a well-made skeleton knows it’s a skeleton, ready to burst out of at the first sign of weakness. You can find no fault in his logic; they can do amazing things with 3D printers these days.

The doctor secures the chicken wire with a bag of zip ties from Home Depot. He then grabs a drywall knife and scoops a big pile of the cremains mixture onto the wire-encased right shin. He mentions his patent-pending skin formula is completely full-moon proof. You ask what happens on a full moon. The doctor beams—NOTHING, thanks to his secret formula! His hunched-over posture of concentration reminds you of the tattoo artist when you and hubby got matching pinup girls with the word “LOVE” inscribed underneath. The doctor draws several occult-looking symbols onto your husband’s chest with a chopstick you’re not sure is unused. You decide not to remind him of his promise to re-create the tattoo.

By the by, the doctor wants to know how your husband will be spending his time once he comes back to life. There’s lots of red tape about reasons for reanimating a loved one. For instance, valid reasons include appearing as a surprise witness at a murder trial, spending one last Christmas with the fam, or firing their loathsome successor at the family business. Activities such as acting as a human shield, digging their own grave, or being the patsy in an elaborate jewel heist are strictly verboten (though for jewel heists, the role of “the brains of the outfit” is acceptable). You respond that your husband is dead, isn’t that reason enough? You miss the conversations, the cuddles, the creature comforts of living with your best friend. You can’t cope with your husband’s death without him, and yes, you know how crazy that sounds. The doctor nods—moving on is a lot harder for the living than the dead.

The doctor positions several oscillating fans next to your husband, and invites you to join him outside for a smoke while the new flesh dries. You confide to the doctor that you feel like you should stay there with your once-and-future husband, but part of you doesn’t want to be alone with this mound of corpse batter. He says that’s a perfectly natural response. Also, could he bum a smoke from you?

The mixture has dried, and the doctor tells you—and these are his words—it’s time to turn and burn, baby. Or perhaps he was talking to your husband, and you’re not sure which makes you more uncomfortable. He grabs a series of electrodes connected to a thing, licking each one like it’s a postage stamp, and attaches them to your husband’s new flesh. The doctor dons a pair of heavy rubber gloves, a welding mask, and a lead vest. He then hands you a pair of safety glasses you wouldn’t trust if you were making a homemade birdhouse. When he tells you to stand back, you backpedal behind a reinforced shield wall at a velocity that will leave your muscles sore for two days.

Before he throws the master switch—one of those oversized red buttons labeled “easy” they sell at Staples for six bucks—the doctor rattles off the safety concerns you’d already learned from his website, but which he’s required by law to mention again. For example, your husband will go out looking for those responsible for his death. You reply that he was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident. The doctor winks and points at your husband. He knows who did it. Oh-ho-ho-ho, he knows.

The doctor asks if you have pets. You mention your corgi, Max, whom the doctor advises you to give away. When you protest, the doctor purses his lips and puts a hand on your shoulder. In his gentlest voice he tells you that, two weeks from now, one way or another, the dog won’t be living with you. This information was not on the website, and you mention, rather forcefully, that Max had been your husband’s dog and without him you couldn’t have held it together, and it would’ve been good to know he couldn’t stay before you started this process. The doctor thanks you for this constructive criticism. You ask the doctor if anybody loves him enough to reanimate him after you strangle him to death. He laughs and says yes, his credit card company. You don’t know what to say to that.

The doctor asks if you have any final questions. Just one, the one you’ve been dreading, the one about which the website was very vague—will your husband still be capable of love? The doctor’s face contorts to one of revulsion as he tells you no. You only meant to ask whether your husband could still feel love as an emotion. He chuckles, relieved, saying the answer to that is also no. All his favorite sports teams? Hubby hates them now. He will harbor a deep, unspoken resentment toward all living creatures, and you especially. Maybe it’s because you disturbed his rest, or you dragged him away from Heaven, or who knows what. Your husband won’t really know, either. He’ll probably lash out at you. He might say something passive-aggressive while watching TV. He may lift the car over his head and hurl it at you. He might start a petty argument for no good reason. This is all perfectly normal and expected. While you will be legally responsible for him, he still has his own will and desires, and he’ll want more out of his new life than reliving his old one; the dead are, by necessity, better at moving on than the living.

The doctor asks if you still want to go through with this. His face shows none of the mirth he’d exhibited up to that point. You pause, contemplating how easily you could tell your friends the doctor turned out to be a flake. You could walk away and keep your dog with nothing lost but your deposit. Well, that and the idea of seeing your beloved’s face again. And he would still be your beloved, no matter what the doctor said. You give the final okay.

The doctor presses the button. You’re half-expecting lightning to course into your husband’s new body, for him to let out a monstrous growl as raw animal life surges into the waiting vessel. What actually happens is much less dramatic, more like a vibrating massage chair; you hear the muffled ringtone of your husband’s Samsung brain, like when your iPhone slides between the couch cushions.

It takes a minute or so for your husband to boot up. The skin starts to move, then all at once, it sucks inward like a vacuum sealer, forming the contours of your husband’s face.

He rises. The doctor had warned you about the eerie red light that now pours from your husband’s empty eye sockets, but you can’t really prepare yourself for the first time you see a living, breathing monster. The doctor corrects you—the scientific term is “abomination before God,” which his lawyer has assured him is very different, legally speaking.

Your husband looks at you. You go weak in the knees—his loving gaze always made your knees weak, but this is different. He opens his mouth, and the light pours forth from there as well. Oh, God, it’s weird. His voice sounds delayed, like he’s speaking to you via satellite from somewhere far, far away. OH HEY. I MUST’VE. DRIFTED OFF FOR A. BIT. But at bottom, it’s his voice, and you throw your arms around him. He freezes. The light inside him intensifies, redder and redder, so bright you can hear it. He puts his arms around you. For a moment, you think (hope?) he might crush you, but he does not. He pats you on the back a couple times.

Tears overflow from your eyes. You want to kiss him, but you don’t dare, lest that red light enter your body. You just tell him how much you love him and how you’ve missed him and you can’t believe he’s back, and so on.

The terrible red light now glows through his flesh. DID YOU. WATCH GAME. OF THRONES WITHOUT. ME?

You shake your head and wipe the tears away. You were waiting for him.

He shrugs and the light subsides. WHATEVER YOU. WANT, BABE.

You scoff at the doctor’s notion that the dead are better at moving on than the living: you’ve moved on from the very concept of moving on. You forget about the life you may have had as a family of one. You forget about the dog, for what living creature can compete with nostalgia in (mostly) human form? You can sit on the couch with your sweetie again, or a reasonable approximation thereof. The doctor was right, it’s the little creature comforts that make life worth living, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

During your reverie, your husband had started to strangle the doctor. You put your hand on your husband’s shoulder, and at your touch he releases his grip. The doctor gives you a thumbs-up to show he’s okay, this happens all the time.

You smile at your husband. It’s time to go home.

© 2020 by Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris writes mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. He has published several short stories in literary journals, and writes an advice column at Writer Unboxed designed to help dilettantes and hacks learn nothing whatsoever. When he’s not typing words into a thing, Bill develops online courses at an organization his lawyer advised him not to name. He has two sons who asked not to be mentioned in this bio, but Elliott and Wyatt forgot to say “please.”

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BOOK REVIEW: Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler

written by David Steffen

Clay’s Ark is a 1984 science fiction novel by Octavia Butler, in her Patternmaster series. It was the last of the four of the books to be published, but is the third in the chronological storyline. It is the next book chronologically after Mind of My Mind (reviewed here).

Chronologically it is the first to introduce the clayarks, a race of mutant humans created by an infection from outer space. Between the last book and this one, an exploration spaceship was sent out called Clay’s Ark. The expedition encountered an alien infection and one survivor brought it back.

It is a few decades in the future on Earth, and conditions in America have decline enough that most people either live in gated communities or as “car families”, militant nomadic bands that prey on anyone trying to travel. Physician Blake Maslin and his twin daughters Keira and Rane are kidnapped by Eli Doyle, the survivor from Clay’s Ark. Eli is not at all what they expect, just another car family henchman looking for theft or ransom. They’re taken back to an isolated compound with a bunch of others who are all acting very strangely. The infection is isolated for the time being, but how long until it breaks out?

If you have read Patternmaster, the final book chronologically, you already know where this ends up on a macro level, and so if you read them in the order of actual publication you would have already known, but in the collection I read them in they were ordered chronologically so I did not know. I think this added to the overall tension of my reading but I did also still care how the individual characters would survive in this tense setting caught between kidnappers and an alien disease. Tense, gripping, kept me interested until the end, worth the read (though Wild Seed is still my favorite in the series).

If you have read Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, which both focused on a group of earthlings who over generations of selective breeding have led to increasingly powerful psychic abilities, you might wonder why this book is in the same series as those, when this seems to have nothing to do with those. The storylines have some minor ties you can discern, but the major ties come within Patternmaster book.


written by David Steffen

You are a high school student, and you have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism for being near some kind of terrorist act at the the time that it happened.  Your only chance at freeing yourself is to hack into the smartphone of one of your classmates to gather evidence.  Replica is a puzzle game by Somi published on Steam in July 2016 where you are tasked by Homeland Security to hack into a phone and gather evidence.

Many features of the phone are locked down before its given to you (which given that they haven’t cracked the password yet, is a little inconsistent), and other features appear to be inaccessible with only a point-and-click interface–for instance, there is a Search app but you can only view the search history and search for things in the search history, not freely typing.  You are given a series of tasks to prove that you’re able to figure this information out from text history, call history, phone history, cracking social media apps.  You gather evidence simply by clicking on things that fit the criteria.  One of your first tasks is to find the name of the owner of the phone, so you find that somewhere in the settings and click on it.

The game seemed a lot more wide open and interesting in theory than it ended up being.  The point-and-click-only interface was pretty limited in that you couldn’t even bring up a touch keyboard for the Search app, and other features were locked by Homeland Security.  There just ended up not being a lot of areas to explore in the phone, and so the answers sort of had to be conveniently placed in one of these few small areas.  Not only that, but the owner of the phone is in the habit of deleting everything, so there are only like 5 pictures, only a few short text conversations.  You could get through the game by just clicking on everything you see and it wouldn’t take that long to complete the major tasks because there just aren’t that many options.  I feel like this game could’ve been really extraordinary if it had opened up more of the space and given more area to search through and more things in each area (interesting things to read, so it would have to be interesting content certainly).

Grainy, low resolution, if it’s supposed to be smartphone era it would’ve made more sense to up the res.

Finding all of the hidden parts in the phone is somewhat of a challenge, but the main throughline of the story you can get through without too much difficulty, or if you’re hardpressed you could just click randomly.

Pretty slight on story.  After the premise, and the tone the game is presented in, it’s pretty clear where it’s going to go.

Session Time
I couldn’t find any way to save the game, so unless you want to start completely from scratch, the session time seems to be however long it takes you to reach an ending, which took me maybe a half hour through the main throughline.

It seems like it should be more playable, it should be more like a phone interface, with more things to look at.  But most of the programs are locked down by security and the Search program that seems like it should be the most useful is basically useless, because you can only click and there are no keyboard controls on that app.

You could get some replayability from trying to reach the different endings, though the 3 endings that I saw were all along my expectations, so I didn’t feel driven to seek out more.

The premise strikes me as original, and something very timely, but I didn’t think the execution really followed through with that.

With no particular skill, I finished 3 endings in less than 2 hours.

It’s an interesting idea I haven’t seen in another game, but I feel like there might be another out there that’s executed this better.   $3 on Steam.