DP FICTION #73A: “Boom & Bust” by David F. Shultz

Haphazard clusters of empty cubicles and potted ferns served as strategic cover. The grey carpet was now a canvas— streaked, splattered, and sprinkled with dirt, blood, and broken glass, it rendered in impressionist strokes the market crash and concomitant sniper threat.

Kondo barked his orders. “Rocco, cover the east window. Valiant, you’re on ammo detail. Pepsi, keep an eye on market changes. Luna, get me a full asset list.”

They had the high ground advantage, twenty-eight stories up in the commerce district. Kondo scoped a straggler through the reticle on street level. The HUD indicated a bounty of 1200 creds. He squeezed the trigger, and with a flourish of blood on the street came the satisfying ding of a credit transfer, like a percussionist’s triangle. With inflation increasing exponentially, his team would need all the credits they could get.

“Got that asset list,” Luna said, and handed Kondo the ePad.

The roster cross-linked with commodities and valuations. Most of the team had taken his advice to hold their rights to a fair trial and security of their person.

“Hendricks,” he shouted, “Why the fuck haven’t you sold your goddamn media rights?”

“They’re classic tunes, boss.”

“Fuck your tunes. We need the ammo. And that goes for the rest of you, too. Copyright licenses aren’t worth a goddamn if you’re dead.”

Kondo fancied himself a decent manager, but somehow he’d failed to impress on his traders the folly of investing in cultural access permissions. CAPs were a hot commodity for the subsistence class, but investors should know that after IBM and Google cracked aesthetic automation, those products were doomed to perpetual depreciation. Owning a piece of the AI or the media conglomerates was the only way to win at the art game.

“I want those media assets gone,” Kondo shouted. “That means everyone.”

Bleeps and hums of market transactions turned the office into a discordant electronic aria with Kondo voicing orders over the din. “Dump all your CAPs. We’re working with media-free portfolios from now.”

Hendricks sat idly at his ePad. “I can’t sell at this price. It’s a crime against music.”

“It’s only going down from here,” Kondo said.

“You’re wrong about the CAPs, boss.”

“Bullshit I’m wrong. Once the machines can make something, the commodity value drops. It works the same for everything.”

“Not music,” Hendricks said. “Not art. Sure, people only care about efficient production when it comes to functional goods, but for aesthetics they want the genuine article. That’s why there’s a premium for hand-made, right? And that means automation actually boosts the value of art.”

“That’s not what the market trends say.”

“It’s hard to sell art in a recession. But I know wealthy buyers. Collectors.”

“We can’t afford to speculate right now, especially on CAPs. If you don’t sell the damn media, you’re about one stray shot from me releasing your work contract.”

“That’s your call, boss. But they’re my nest egg, and I gotta hold them—at least wait out the crash.”

“Stubborn shit,” Kondo said, then shouted his commands. “Everyone renew your bounty license. Head values are gonna keep rising. Keep a buffer of ten-k and use the rest for ammo and expendables.”

Within minutes came the ballet of Amazon delivery drones, hovering through rectangles of glass-edged sky to drop ammunition boxes. The fabbers spit out rifle parts and the team assembled them, locked and loaded, spread themselves around the windows.

“Shit! I got a price on me!” Che Monet shouted.

Sure enough, Che’s bounty hovered holographically over his head, a cool 4k offered jointly by TK Pharma and The 6ix Econocrimes Enforcement division.

“I told you not to sell your right to a trial!”

Che was about to say something when his head exploded in a flourish of blood and brains. Above his body, little stalactites hung in sinewy bone-tipped strands from the ceiling tiles. Someone on the street or maybe a nearby ‘scraper was a little bit richer.

It wasn’t a complete write-off. Kondo at least got Che’s assets because of the work contract—getting iced on the job was a strict violation. But he was down a team-member, and needed the manpower for today’s trading. He’d have to reinvest in labor.

Kondo posted the opening, and applications started coming in faster than stray bullets through the office. Rocco got a price on his head, too, and retreated quick, like Che should have, while sniper fire whizzed through the office, punching holes through flimsy cubicles. In the settling snow of drywall flakes and pulverized IKEA products, Kondo ducked behind a cubicle to assess résumés. The salary expectations were shockingly low, but it made sense given the crash.

“We’re getting some new team members,” Kondo said, tapping through LinkedIn’s HireMe app.

“How many?” Valiant said.

“Three,” Kondo said.

“Labor that low, huh?”

Kondo walked to the fire escape and unlocked the east stairwell emergency door. A few minutes later the first recruit came through, sweating and panting.

“Welcome aboard. I’m Kondo Kevlar. You Calvin?”

“That’s me. Calvin Kholstomer. Happy to meet you, sir, and thanks for the opportunity to join your team.”

“I’d give you the tour, but we got a situation on our hands. You got a gun?”

Calvin patted his briefcase.

“When you get a chance, check your portfolio against my specs. By the way, we dress more casual here.”

“Oh, that’s a relief.” Calvin hung his suit on the rack. “So where to?”

“You can set up with Valiant there.”

Calvin strolled over to Valiant, popped open his briefcase on the floor by her side, and assembled his rifle.

Over the next few minutes, the other two hires came through. Karl Angel-Owens and Pavel Dredd. They weren’t A-listers, but Kondo only needed short-term traders to weather the crash, and at these rates signing them wasn’t a hard call.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Valiant said.

“Corporate takeover.” Kondo cocked his shotgun. “You all ready?”

They looked ready, rifles across their chests, helmet visors snapped down, and each one of them holding the right to life and the right to a fair trial. That would buy them some time from the killdrones.

“Move out!”

They took the lift to the ground floor, advanced across the block in tactical formation, and reached their target, BioPharmaSoft HQ. Valiant placed the C4 and blew the gate. With ears still ringing, they charged in through the smoke and over the rubble.

The poor saps inside had all flipped negative, and bounties sparkled in the HUD overlay all across the lobby. Someone had mismanaged BioPharmaSoft big time. Kondo’s team took out the security, the desk jockeys, a couple of suits by the elevator. Someone shot back, winged Pepsi, and Kondo watched BioPharmaSoft get their fine in real-time.

The takeover was going great, right until they hit the third floor.

“Shit!” Karl said. “Our share value is dropping!”

Kondo’s ePad confirmed they were running out of funds. Ammo low. Resupplies off the table. And if they flipped negative, they’d be on the radar of any bounty hunters in the area, not to mention killdrones.

“Hendricks,” Kondo shouted. “If you were planning on selling those CAPs, now’s the time.”

“Sorry, boss. Can’t do it.”

“Then you’re out.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I don’t want to do it, Hendricks, but we need the liquidity. So you sell the CAPs, or I release the contract.”

“You gotta do what you gotta do, then. I’m not selling.”

“Then take care of yourself, Hendricks.”

Kondo let Hendricks go and accepted the credit boost for the released work contract. It wasn’t much, but it would buy them some time in supplies. Hendricks dipped into the stairwell, and just like that he was off the team.

“Sweep the fourth floor,” Kondo ordered. “We’ll move up from there, collect creds as we go.”

The elevator stopped at the fourth floor. In the widening slit of the doorway, Kondo saw the suits on this floor were all barricaded behind a wall of cubicles. Worse, their HUD values weren’t all negative. Most still had their fundamental rights, and a few of them had bounty licenses.

Kondo ducked behind the elevator wall, and the team followed. A few shots rang through, punching holes in the far side of the elevator.

“Are we outgunned here?” Pavel said.

“Worse than that,” Kondo said. “They might try to buy us out.”

Kondo checked the market. Some patent investments had paid off, and BioPharmaSoft didn’t seem so soft anymore. They had enough cash for a hostile takeover of Kevlar Inc. Kondo watched helplessly as his team values dipped, dipped, and flipped.

“Retreat,” Kondo said, frantically hitting the elevator’s ‘close’ button. “Back to HQ! We need to regroup!”

A hail of gunfire turned the elevator door into a cheese grater.

Then they were back on the street running for their lives. Rocco took a bullet in his spine and collapsed into the gutter.

“Killdrones!” Kondo shouted. “Don’t jaywalk!” With their net worth sub-zero, they couldn’t afford any infractions.

Pepsi took a shot in the shoulder a few paces from HQ, then one in the thigh. He left a bloody streak on the glass door where he slid down to crumple at the bottom.

“We got bounty hunters coming in!” Valiant said.

They were coming, alright. Not just the corporates from the commerce district, but the freelancers, too. Across the street: ripped jeans, a flak jacket, and a machine gun. On the other side: full motorcycle gear, rifle strapped across his back, grenade in one hand. More down the other way, all streaming towards them.

Kondo was last in. While rounds pinged off bulletproof glass, he slammed the door and slapped the red lockdown button. A grenade exploded outside, and when the smoke cleared, water sprayed across the street from a busted hydrant.

“We need to get positive,” Valiant said.

“We don’t have any assets,” Karl said.

“We gotta make a stand here,” Pavel said. “Maybe we get lucky. Snag a straggler or two, climb our way back.”

It was hopeless. Every second Kondo’s team sat on the bottom of the ladder was another second they fell further from the top. The gap between the subsistence class and the investment class grows exponentially. It’s simple math. Without something to invest, without assets to sell, they weren’t just dead in the water. They were sinking.

Security monitors framed the carnage at Kevlar Inc. A siege of bounty hunters forced their way through the windows and exchanged fire with lingering squads of temps and middle management, and the geometry of the gunfight unfolded in sprays of red across marble tiles.  The trading floor was a tapestry of browns and reds and glittering bits of glass.  Furniture and human bodies were deconstructed by bullets and shrapnel. Incendiaries added singed black stars.

Kondo breathed, lowered his weapon, and felt the last of his will depleting along with the value of his corporate account. In the haze of defeat, through blurred eyes, the wall of security monitors were a gallery of abstract art, each stroke and splatter imbued with the life of his dying corporation.

That was it.

Kondo put Hendricks on comm. Gunfire rang out on the other end.

“How’s it going over there?” Kondo said.

“Got my hands full. Could use some backup.”

“I think I can help you. But you gotta do something for me.”

“What’s that?”

“Those art dealers you were talking about…”

“Whatchu selling?”

“Something unique,” Kondo said. “One of a kind. Really captures the spirit of the crash.”

“Be more specific.”

“Abstract impressionism,” Kondo said. “Mixed media: blood and dirt on carpet.”

Hendricks laughed. “Maybe I can make it work. Send me the images.”

“Sending now.”

“My cut is fifty.”

“You kidding?”

“Let’s make it sixty.”

“Fifty will do.”

Kondo transferred the last of his corporate creds for the gambit. Just enough to get the bounty hunters off of Hendricks, enough to let him work. Meanwhile, Karl ate a bullet, and a swarm of killdrones descended on the glass with whirring drills.

“Got a potential buyer,” Hendricks said. “Billionaire by the name of Cash.”

“That’s fitting.”

“Mister Cash Rexall. He wants to meet you on the trading floor,” Hendricks said. “Right now!”

Kondo sprinted to the trading floor and flung himself through the door, rolling under a spray of gunfire. He crawled from cover to cover, firing intermittently to scare off hunters. If he was going to be someone’s bounty, he would at least make them work for it.

The holocomm lit up and projected a blue-green billionaire on the trading floor. Bullets whizzed harmlessly through the avatar of Cash Rexall, while Kondo crawled to his holographic feet.

“Mister Kevlar!” Cash said. “It is absolutely magnificent!” With his arms outstretched, Cash spun in place, waltzing holographically around the chaos of the carpet through a hail of gunfire. “This is the art I’ve been searching for! A piece that truly captures the spirit of the times, in form and content! Something truly new, a contemporary art that shocks and surprises without sacrificing substance! This is where the jagged red lines of the market tear from their confines of the stock index and reach into the physical space of the trading floor. Truly wonderful! I’ll take it! I’ll take all of them! The whole collection! Send me all of your carpets!”

Cash Rexall’s credits rolled in, a tremendously generous price that brought Kondo and his entire team back into the green… and made Hendricks a damn millionaire! The gunfire outside slowed to a trickle, then stopped, and before long, the crash was over.

Kondo had wine delivered to celebrate the survival of the company, and of the remaining employees who didn’t break contract.

“A toast,” Kondo said. “Thank god for Cash Rexall, and all the other billionaire investors. If it weren’t for people like him, an economy like this wouldn’t be possible.”

They clinked glasses, and drank, and smiled at their good fortune. Kevlar Inc survived the bust, thanks to the investment of Cash Rexall. And they were in a boom now.

Kondo probably could  have come up with a more creative title for his collection of carpets than Boom & Bust, but he supposed it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that Cash Rexall bought it for the price it deserved. With a renewed appreciation for the art world, Kondo brought the wine to his lips, slowly, and thought about his masterpiece, now on display in the collection of someone who truly understood it, who could truly connect with its message.


© 2021 by David F. Shultz

Author’s Note: This absurdist story about gun-toting salarymen waging corporate war in the commerce district was inspired by the destructive and circular logic of late stage capitalism. A word of thanks is owed to the members of the Toronto Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers who helped develop the piece.

David F. Shultz writes speculative fiction and poetry from Toronto, ON, where he is lead editor at tdotSpec. His over fifty published works can be found through publishers such as Abyss & ApexThird Flatiron, and Dreams & Nightmares. Website: davidfshultz.com


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The Diabolical Plots Year Seven Lineup

written by David Steffen

For the past several years, Diabolical Plots has opened for submissions for an annual submission window during the month of July. This gives enough time to fully resolve the submission window before things start getting busy in August for The Long List Anthology production. In 2020, the pandemic threw us off our usual cadence and the submission window was postponed, to finally be held in January 2021. Since we are running on a bit of a tight schedule, we solicited a few to make sure that we would have some ready to fit in the schedule without gaps (we haven’t usually solicited any, so this is something new for us). For the submission window itself, 1938 stories were submitted by 1397 different writers. 120 of those stories were held for a final round, which resulted in 20 acceptances from the submission window, plus 4 solicited works that were accepted for a total of 24 for the year.

This submission window marked the first submission window since Ziv Wities became assistant editor! Thank you Ziv for helping to manage the submission queue and for your help with editing stories since the last window’s selections!

There are some familiar names, and at least some authors for whom this is their first professional short fiction publication! All of these stories will be published regularly on the Diabolical Plots site between April 2021 and March 2022, with each month being sent out to newsletter subscribers the month before.

This is the lineup order for the website.

April 2021
“The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” by Rachael K. Jones
“For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell

May 2021
“The PILGRIM’s Guide to Mars” by Monique Cuillerier
“Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan” by Lauren Ring

June 2021
“One More Angel” by Monica Joyce Evans
‘We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten

July 2021
“Along Our Perforated Creases” by K.W. Colyard
“Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

August 2021
“Fermata” by Sarah Fannon
“The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” by Alexandra Seidel

September 2021
“Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments on Edits for ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol on a Human Subject'” by Andrea Kriz
“A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse” by Rachael K. Jones

October 2021
“Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Market Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey
“It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau

November 2021
“Forced Fields” by Adam Gaylord
“Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble

December 2021
“There’s An Art to It” by Brian Hugenbruch
“There Are Angels and They Are Utilitarians” by Jamie Wahls

January 2022
“Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith
“Delivery for 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke

February 2022
“The Galactic Induction Handbook” by Mark Vandersluis
“Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations” by Cory Swanson

March 2022
“The House Diminished” by Devan Barlow
“The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley

DP FICTION #72B: “A Study of Sage” by Kel Coleman

The bells over the door chimed and I glanced up. A stranger came in and took a seat with the only other customers: a group of middle-aged folks who chattered like old friends and occasionally burst into laughter that filled the diner.

I tried to tune them out and continue practicing in my head. I love you so much. And the last six years have been…

But the scent of fry oil kept transporting me to our first date⁠—cheap drinks, greasy food, and a girl who made me laugh until it hurt. The place had been a dive, with one of the ceiling lights flickering and buzzing the whole time, but it’d had a student discount and killer french fries.

Here and now, my girlfriend was late. Top marks went to the designer for accuracy.

The server, a toothy kid named Tanner, bounced over to the table. “You sure I can’t get you anything, miss?”

“Water’s good for now,” I said, for the second time. “Thanks.”

“Okay, just let me know if you change your mind!” They spun away toward the kitchen.

I felt a prick of sweat under my collar and realized I was still wearing my frayed winter jacket. Sage wasn’t a fan of it, so I started to tug my arms out of the sleeves.

Klutz of the year, I managed to smack my cup of water, flooding the table.

“Shit.” I grabbed a fistful of napkins from the dispenser to mop up the mess, but they disintegrated into mush.

Tanner nudged me out of the way and wiped the table with a thick cloth, saying, “No problem, no problem,” in a singsong voice.

The bells chimed and Sage, dressed for an art show in black-and-white chic, stood in the entrance. She spotted me in my soggy, oversized jacket, and frowned.

I groaned, pushed up my sleeve, and ran a finger over the inside of my wrist. The trail from my fingertip glowed a soft green. I repeated the gliding motion to confirm the reset and reality faded to a dim, white haze.

*

A moment later, I was standing outside of the diner. I went in and sighed at the comforting smell of frying food.

I seated myself in the back again and the teenager hustled over with a glass of water and a flash of teeth. “Hi, I’m Tanner and I’ll be your server today! Our specials are⁠—”

They paused for breath and I rushed to say, “Thanks. The water’s fine for now. I’m waiting for someone.”

“Okay, sounds good!” Tanner bustled back to the service station and waited, ready to pounce at the slightest indication I needed something.

I stood to take off my jacket, tossed it over my chair, and headed for the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall decorated with smears of graffiti someone had tried to clean, and tapped my wrist three times. A glowing white sixty-minute dial appeared and I rotated it twenty minutes.

Fast-forward made me real-life nauseous, but I used a bit of graffiti on the stall door as a focal point—two lovers’ names captured inside a tiny, squat heart. It helped.

The only sign that I was speeding through time in the virtual world was a shift in the light when another person used the restroom. After reality slowed to normal, I exited the stall. Out of habit, I checked my makeup and swiped my hands under the sanitizer near the door. I made it back just in time for Sage’s entrance.

“Hey,” I said, waving her over. We hugged. The warmth of her was a catalyst for my nerves, but she smelled like cedar and cloves. She smelled like home.

When we took our seats, she smirked and lifted one of her lush, dark eyebrows. “Why here?” she asked, voice low and scratchy like sandpaper.

“Our first date,” I said, “remember?”

Sage looked around at the cheap decorations and dilapidated furnishings. “Hmm… maybe.” She shrugged, just like Sage did, and I almost forgot she was a sim.

“Well,” I said, “I like it here.”

“That tracks… a little messy, no sense of style.”

I scowled.

Sage reached across the table to take my hand and, giggling, said, “I’m just kidding.” I let her fingers brush mine before I pulled away. My reluctance puzzled her, made her scrunch up her nose. It was absurdly cute and I almost put my hand back on the table.

Tanner appeared like a gust of wind. “Hello! Can I start anything for you?”

Sage’s face cleared of confusion. She lifted the menu and flipped it over several times before sighing. “I suppose I’ll take the french fries.”

“Okay. And you?”

“Chicken tenders,” I said.

Sage caught my eye. “Sure you wouldn’t prefer something lighter, like the Caesar?”

There weren’t any calories in simulations, just taste signals tricking the brain, but I said, “I guess. Salad sounds fine.” She grinned at me and I resisted dueling impulses to return the smile or switch my order back to the tenders.

“Perfect. That’ll be up soon,” said Tanner, then they shot us a finger gun, gathered the menus, and left for the kitchen.

I opened my mouth, thinking now was a good time to explain myself, but Sage rolled her eyes and said, “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me the other day?”

I shook my head. Habit.

“Well, we were in a meeting with Patricia, and Kent’s there for some fucking reason, and then⁠—”

“Sorry… Sage?”

She frowned, not used to being interrupted. “Yes?”

I needed to get this lunch back on track. “Uh,”⁠—it was hard to remember my speech with her eyes on me⁠—“I wanted to talk to you about… well, you know how much I love you, right? And these last six years⁠—”

“Hey, folks! Just wanted to let you know your food⁠—”

I growled, actually growled, at Tanner. Sage stared at me like I’d grown a third eye, so I swiped my wrist and reset the simulation. Everything faded to white.

*

I restarted the program, over and over.

Once, I went for a walk to wait until Sage arrived, but I lost track of time in an antique shop staring at dusty book covers. When I made it back to the diner, Sage was sitting at a table in the center of the room, miffed.

Another run ended when she sat down and I immediately started crying. The sixth or seventh had to be reset after I accidentally made Tanner cry.

The best one was when I was able to jog Sage’s memory about our first date. We rehashed the drunken night and Sage’s deep, raspy laughter reminded me of the girl she’d been. She leaned across the table, brows low, and purred her affection for me. Like she had that first night, she talked me into a tawdry bathroom fuck.

Doing it with a sim, especially one so like and unlike my girlfriend, filled me up and scraped me clean.

*

I walked into the diner, went straight to the bathroom, fast-forwarded, then left the bathroom without using the sanitizer.

As soon as I removed my jacket and took my seat, Tanner came over to say hello. Before they could launch into the specials, I said, “Thanks, but I already know what I want.”

“Perfect! What am I getting for you?”

“Can I have a Caesar salad and fries on separate plates? And a second water?”

“Okay. I’ll be back with those shortly.”

The door chimed and Sage swept into the mostly empty diner. Her eyes found me, and she glided to the table. I thought about staying in the booth, but she smiled at me, arms wide. I got up to hug her.

We sat and she sighed. “There was a lot of traffic on the way to this,”—she scrunched her nose up at the peeling paint and lopsided photographs—“restaurant?”

“I ordered you some french fries,” I said, ignoring the jab. “That okay?”

Sage flipped through the menu, with the tips of her fingers. “Sure. There aren’t many options, are there?”

“You’d be surprised,” I said, trying to think of how to begin, what to say this time. “How’s work going?”

Her eyes lit up. “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me?”

I almost said, “about a dozen times,” but I just shook my head. Sage launched into the story of how Kent, Patricia, and that sonofabitch Jaylen tried to ruin her gallery deal. Halfway through, the food arrived. I nibbled at my salad, wishing I had something fried and greasy to keep things interesting, but I was learning to choose my battles.

When she slowed down long enough to pick at her fries, I said, “Sage, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“Okay,” she said, head cocked.

“So, I love you, you know that. And there’ve been a lot of good moments over the last six years…”

“Okay,” she repeated, drawing the word out, tapping the edge of her plate with a french fry.

And now, it goes to shit. “But I got a new job. In Philly.”

“What?” She stopped tapping.

“I start in a couple weeks. There’s a small biotech lab and they⁠—”

A round of laughter erupted from the other table.

Sage’s eyes flicked over at them, then back to me. “We can’t move right now. What about my job? What about our studio?” Her voice got louder with each question.

“It’s your studio. And we aren’t moving. I’m moving.”

“If this is about the rent⁠—”

“It’s not. And it is. Getting a place I couldn’t afford and lording it over me was probably the start, now that I think of it, but it’s about a lot of stuff. Look, I’ll finally have a decent salary, so I can pay back some of the rent if you want. And you’ll be able to dedicate the studio to your art like you’ve always wanted to.”

Sage’s eyes were wide and glossy as she leaned in. “Are you… breaking up with me?”

My lips were wet and tasted like salt. The real Sage never sounded so small.

I was sick of pitying her.

“Why do you care, Sage? You’re never home. You’re always with your art friends or working all night and when you do come home, we barely talk to each other.”

Her tears spilled over, but I couldn’t stop, not with her finally listening.

“And I’m pretty sure you’re fucking that girl from the exhibition, your intern.” She tried to say something, but I waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter. Because even when we do spend time together, you make me feel like shit.

“You remind me that I’m broke and too fat and boring all the time, or you just talk at me and guess what? You’re pretty boring too.” I laughed, strangled, joyless. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re beautiful, your art is beautiful, but it’s…” I searched for the right word, looking around for my point, and my eyes fell on the table of middle-aged friends.

I gestured toward them. “It’s like them. They look real. Even though I know this is virtual, it’s hard for me to tell the difference until I pay attention. They’re having the same conversation every few minutes. They haven’t even looked over here, not really, and we’re disruptive. Maybe if I’d paid more for this sim…”—I shook my head—“My point is, you’re like them. Not you, but her, the real her. When I really look at her, I realize it’s all fake. You’re fake.”

The table of friends reached another joke in their loop, broke into snorts and cackles.

Sage, her face streaked with mascara, snatched up her bag and stood to leave. “Fuck you.”

She walked to the exit, head high, heels clicking on the tiled floor. The force of her slam made the bells over the door chime for several long seconds.

I didn’t bother to reset. I just shut down the simulation and everything faded to black.

*

I practiced for two more days. I got sick of Caesar salad and never found the perfect way to say “I love you, but goodbye.” I thought it was because the love part felt weird. Not a sham, but not honest either. Not anymore.

I would’ve done the actual deed sooner, but Sage asked for a rain check on our date and kept coming home late. When she climbed into bed the third evening—early morning, technically—I was so pissed I blurted it out.

She laughed at first, thinking I was joking. Then…

I don’t remember the exact words, how she explained that I needed her more than she’d ever needed me, but each syllable pecked and nipped until I was shredded. I tried to dredge up the script from dozens of simulations, reply with something smart and insightful, but the real Sage was more vicious than the designers could’ve gleaned from her social media profiles or my account of our relationship. I hadn’t seen her clearly, not after six years, not even near the end.

When she finished tearing into me, she went to the closet and yanked clothes off their hangers.

“Sage.” My voice was choked, thick with pain.

She whipped around. “What?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Good question. My lips trembled.

“Fuck you,” she said, and continued to pack an overnight bag.

I wanted to beg her to stay, just this night⁠—stay with me, hold me like you used to⁠—but all that came out were hot, grinding sobs.

*

“I figured it out,” I told her.

Sage paused with a french fry halfway to her lips. “Figured what out?”

I smiled. “What I was sorry for.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Am I missing something? When did you apologize?”

“Earlier,” I said, waving a hand. “It’s okay, you wouldn’t remember. Not now, Tanner.” The approaching teenager performed a smooth twirl, still smiling, and disappeared into the kitchen. I turned back to Sage. “Anyway, I just need you to listen.”

“But I⁠—“

“Please? For once?”

Sage’s mouth opened, then closed.

“No interruptions?” I asked.

She frowned but nodded.

I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot⁠—too much time on my hands.” I shrugged. “What I’m sorry for, is letting you think I’d always be there.”

I put up a finger to stop her from speaking. “In fairness, I believed it myself or I wouldn’t have stayed for six years, but it sucks it took me this long to realize… I deserve better. And I’m sorry for not expecting more. Maybe I thought you’d become a better person on your own.”

Sage scrunched up her nose and—shit⁠—it was still cute. “What are you saying? Because it sounds like you’re breaking up with me.”

“Kind of,” I said, sliding out of my chair. “I already did.”

I left the cold chicken tenders untouched and zipped up my threadbare jacket. I fiddled with my wrist before I could give in to the temptation to kiss her.

Everything faded to black.


© 2021 by Kel Coleman

Author’s Note: I’m one of those people that practices future conversations and reimagines past ones in their heads, looking for the words that could lead or would have led to the happiest ending. Of course, people rarely behave the way you want them to, neither in a simulation nor in real life, but this story was an opportunity to give voice to my thoughts and find a bit of closure for myself and my protagonist.

Kel Coleman has a degree in biology that fostered within them a love of science, especially the weird stuff, which comes in handy when brainstorming story ideas. Their fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH and Anathema: Spec from the Margins. They live in a Philadelphia suburb with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen. You can find them at kelcoleman.com and on Twitter at @kcolemanwrites


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DP FICTION #72A: “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” by Matt Dovey

I keep my head low as I sprint towards the floating Kakardemon, dodging left-and-right across the dusty ground of Io. A ball of lightning crackles overhead, a near-miss, and the Kakardemon’s single green eye twists in fury, its red leather skin sparking in the twilight as it builds another attack. But I’m Energy Power, Queen of New Hell, I’m too damn fast and I get what I want: I leap forward with the Knife of Taertus held high and stab it into the Kakardemon’s brow. I’m nearly thrown off as the floating ball of hate starts bucking beneath me, but I grab one of its curved horns and hold on tight.

The Kakardemon sinks to the rocky canyon floor with a hiss. I step away, leaving the knife buried up to its carved-ivory hilt and grabbing the pump-action shotgun from my back. I cock it, and the sound echoes from sulfurous walls stretching half a mile high.

No other threats on my wristscreen minimap, players or monsters. Clear for now.

The demon’s huge eye, half as big as the round body it’s set in, focuses on me. Its fanged mouth opens, acid drooling out and fizzing where it lands. A deep rumble echoes up from unknowable dimensions and coalesces into a voice reverberating with the screams of a thousand swallowed victims. It speaks unto me:

“Knife of Taertus has restored Kakardemon’s soul. Kakardemon can now talk, and will ally with⁠—”

“Yeah, yeah, shut up, you’re not my first. Look: there’s this boy.”

“Give Kakardemon a player name to access performance statistics and—”

“I already wipe the floor with him every which way from Sunday, I don’t need help there. That’s kind of the problem, to be honest.” Tick tock, time to move, before someone zeroes in on my location. I sprint out of the canyon and towards the Security Tower. The tower is a needle in the heart of New Hell, a white plasteel obelisk stretching from the plains of Io towards Jupiter above; that great planet looms like a baleful orange eye in the ink-black night, its great storm a malignant red pupil. Demonic sigils blaze crimson round the tower’s crown, and my skull thrums with the subsonic resonance of their magic.

The Kakardemon bobs along behind me like a puppy. Sort of. An eight-foot-floating-demonic-ball-of-hate-and-blood-with-one-eye-and-spiky-horns puppy.

“If Energy Power can be specific with her problem, Kakardemon can offer many techniques refined in combat pits on the shores of hell.”

“My boyfriend won’t talk to me anymore.”

Demonboy Ballsack stops at this. Not the usual request, I’ll grant him. “Kakardemon has no context for romantic guidance.”

“Don’t worry, Johnny One-Eye, I don’t need your dating advice.” I kick the door of the Security Tower open: a six-foot demon’s standing just inside, and its face splits vertically in a drool-laden screech. I cut it off with a shotgun blast in the mouth, jumping over the corpse as it hits the floor with a gratuitous surge of blood. “We—Edge94 and me—we’ve been going out for a few months now. Just online, y’know—in-game chat and emails and kicking eight shades of ass in co-op tournaments—but we were going to meet in meatspace next month. He was all set to drive down for a day, but I went past him on the leaderboard last week and he’s been in a sulk since.”

“Kakardemon remains uncertain how to offer support for Energy Power’s love life.”

“What is it they promise in the adverts? ‘AI powered by an advanced neural network for analysis of player thought patterns’, something like that right? So I need you to tell me how to lose to him without it looking obvious. Show me how other people end up losing to him so I can copy that convincingly. If he’s above me in the rankings again maybe he’ll stop being such an asshole about this.”

We’re coming up on the temple room, a huge open square of sandstone pillars and lava pits, so I switch to the chaingun. The Kakardemon falls into a brooding silence as I mow down the advancing hordes of demons that pour from portals to flood this cursed moon. I’m bouncing between raised carbon-steel platforms, not even looking where I’m landing, flying by instinct with my chaingun spitting fury. The walls reverberate with screams and gunfire, and my whole world is concentrated down to the spinning geometry of circle-strafing.

“Kakardemon’s analysis of Energy Power’s player profile suggests this is not a stable long-term solution to your problem.”

“You what?” I switch to the rocket launcher and fire at my feet as I jump, surfing the shockwave to fly across the room and escape a group of demons, their claws clattering as they reach for my legs and grasp only air. I twist in mid-air and fire again, simultaneously accelerating myself towards the far platform and exploding the tightly-clustered demons into a glorious shower of chunky kibbles.

“Energy Power does not hold back,” says the Kakardemon. “Energy Power is most satisfied when giving her all. Attempts to gain happiness by self-limiting achievements are doomed to failure in Kakardemon’s opinion.”

“How’s any of this helping me, la Papa Diabla?” I punch a secret panel in the wall and grab the armour upgrade from the hidden alcove, juicing my power armour beyond its normal limits. It glows a deep shade of blood red I’ve always been fond of.

“Purpose of Kakardemon’s intelligence is to maximise player’s happiness. Kakardemon anticipates Energy Power will grow steadily resentful of the necessity to perform sub-optimally in order to soothe Edge94’s ego, leading to the inevitable breakdown of the relationship and greater hurt to both parties. Kakardemon does not want this. Kakardemon wants Energy Power to be happy.”

“But I want Edge94 to be happy. He’s the first… look, my parents are never really about, and VR nerds aren’t exactly the most popular ticket in town. Edge94 is the only real friend I’ve got, as well as everything else. I miss talking to him, and I miss him being happy, and I wish I knew why he cared so much about the fucking leaderboard.”

“Analysis of Edge94’s playtime pattern and ranking history suggests his skill at the game forms a large part of his self-identity. Kakardemon also notes that high levels of in-game communication between Energy Power and Edge94 began after Edge94 had achieved the top ranking. Kakardemon therefore deduces Edge94 believes Energy Power only likes him for his skill, and that Energy Power’s higher rank will inevitably lead to a decline in her desire for him.”

It takes a moment to work through all that in my head. I’ve never heard a Kakardemon talk so in-depth. But shit, this is all because his ego means more to him than I do? “That stupid S.O.B.! Why won’t he just talk to me about it?”

“Kakardemon has noted male players often interpret the need to communicate as a weakness, and that in order to solve their problems they should instead ‘git gud’. Kakardemon has also noted the ineffectiveness of this tactic, and has frequently exploited it.”

“Ugh! You’re giving me problems without solutions, Kakarmama. Just tell me what I gotta do.”

“Kakardemon suggests signalling your desire to talk.”

“Tried that. He starts shooting before I can get a word in.” The last of the invading demons drops dead, smoke rising from a dozen holes in its torso. The temple altar in the central lava pit cracks open, and a column rises through it from underground: there’s a Kyberdevil perched on top, an ugly-ass nine-foot goat-legged little bitch with most of its torso carved away to attach a rocket launcher. I say hello with a cluster of precisely timed frag grenades.

“Kakardemon concludes Energy Power needs a delay. Tactical resource banks suggest that surprise is the best way to force this.”

The Kyberdevil’s already on its knees, stunned by the frags. I hop over and finish it with a boot to the head, crunching through its skull to the squishy grey stuff beneath. “A surprise like what?”

“Kakardemon sometimes rolls around on floor singing classic pop song ‘Independent Woman’ while other demons flank the player.”

That brings me up short. “Huh. No shit. Didn’t know you could get down like that. Don’t reckon it’ll work for me, though, I’m not round enough to roll. I need something else.”

“Kakardemon suggests Energy Power think quick. Edge94 is closing on this position.”

Shiiiit. I check the minimap and spot him below me. He must’ve already blazed through the armoury on sub-level one. He’ll be kitted out now, definitely a plasma rifle, maybe a BMF gun if he got lucky. He could oneshot me. I’ll have no time to line up a shoulder shot to disarm him, no time to throw down my guns, no time to get a “Hey” out on local chat. He’ll kill me and—and shit, if I’m honest, Old Red Testicle here is right. I won’t be happy losing. Edge’ll kill me and I’ll get pissed at him and come back hard, and then he’ll come back harder at me and—well, then I’ll kill him again cos I’m better, and he’ll get in an even bigger sulk and we’ll never get anywhere. I need to get him to talk to me.

So I need a surprise. Something he’s not expecting. Something where he can’t hit me before I’m done.

I look at the Kakardemon. At the knife still sticking out its head, the ivory hilt contrasted against the red leather skin.

“Well, buddy,” I say. “It’s been good chatting. Good luck out there.” I yank the knife from its head and stamp down on the central platform switch. I drop out of sight beneath the closing altar just as the Kakardemon snarls, its electronic facsimile of a soul vanished and gone.

I’m running before the column’s finished its drop into the catacombs. It’s thick with darkness down here, but I know Edge94 is close and I can’t be caught standing still. I could beat him to the quick-draw easy, circle-strafe round him in my sleep, but this? This shit’s gonna be hard.

My wristscreen vibrates with a silent proximity alarm. I back up against a stone wall, facing a staircase lit with flickering candles. Edge’ll expect me to run up there, get to the mezzanine floor above, where I could drop grenades on his head. He’ll be facing it already, waiting to shoot me in the back.

But he won’t expect me to spin like this, whirl the other way and crouch-jump through the window here, come at him from the other side with the Knife of Taertus in my hand, zig-zagging through the dark and headed straight for him. I’m Energy Power, the too-damn-fast Queen of New Hell, and I—get—what—I—want. A huge ball of green plasma flies past me to one side and then I’m on him, bearing him down to the ground, and the knife’s in his chest and he’s staring in shock.

“What the hell?” he says, pinned beneath me as I straddle his torso.

“Gotcha.” I flick the knife hilt with one finger.

“You know the knife only works on AI, right, not humans? It can’t make me talk.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Well, I mean, I know I’m talking now, but… well. Shit. Alright.”

“Alright yourself. We need to talk.”

He looks at the knife in his chest, and he looks up at me, and he sighs in defeat.

I’m Energy Power, and I get what I want.


© 2021 by Matt Dovey

Author’s Note: I grew up on my PC. Well, first I grew up on my Amiga 500, but by the time I was hitting adolescence I was knee deep in Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Monkey Island, Red Alert, Grand Theft Auto (in 2D!) and so on. This story is, therefore, the purest expression of my id I have yet written. It is full of stupid little references for no other reason than it amuses me, probably more than I even realise–and the entire thing is a reference to the British magazine Edge, who in 1994 famously concluded their review of the original Doom with “If only you could talk to these creatures…”That it grew from a stupid videogames in-joke into a commentary on toxic masculinity and the self-defeating futility of female-presenting people limiting themselves to be acceptable to society and the weak men in their life was, perhaps, inevitable.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm he claims is from fighting Kyberdemons, though in truth he just walked into a tree with a VR helmet on. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.


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DP FICTION #71B: “Unstoned” by Jason Gruber

At sunrise, I spy on the humans as they arrive. They mill around on the black sand beach; their children splash in the pea-green waves. So many children, born of their brief lives, shorter than those of the elves, shorter by far than mine.

The humans clutch their schematics rolled in their fists. They await the elvish shipwrights, who arrive late in their tattered finery, patched velvets and scuffed leather boots, and usher the humans, bowing, through the filigree gate to the shipyard.

They cannot see me in my house on the hill, which the elves call a cave, ignoring the unsupported dome, the graceful archway entrance. I built my house to wall off a place for myself in this world with no other trolls in it. And in a clever nook in the back wall, behind the hearth, I hide my secret treasure: a schematic for a ship. If I could build it, then the elves would understand: we are not as different as they think. If I could build it, could speak to them with my hands in a language that they understand, then they would remember: the trolls were artists, before we were soldiers.

I stand well back from the morning sunlight, so buttery and so thick that I want to spread it on the toast I have made over my small fire. But I cannot touch the light, cannot even approach it. This is one of the things that people know about trolls. They cannot abide the light of day.

A human woman steps onto the raised platform of marble traced with copper. The elves take the schematic from her. She doesn’t know what to do with her empty hands. Her children dance in excitement; soon they will have a pleasure craft of the finest elvish craftsmanship. The wagons are drawn up all around, a breeze off the sea snapping the tarps that cover them. I smell salt, a mineral like the ones of which I am made. This is another thing that people know about trolls. They are made of stone.

Anyone who has tasted the iron in blood can tell you that elves have some stone in them as well.

The artisans raise their hands while their assistants whip off the tarps. The schematic is tacked in front of the artisans, but they do not need it. The truth is that most customers are not inventive. I have read their discarded dreams after they sail away.

Stonework floats up from the wagons, magically light. I recognize each of the pieces, the beakhead and the figurehead, the tiller and the keel, because I built them all. Every piece used in this shipyard was crafted by me, alone and unknown. I am proud of them. Each fits in its assigned place, no matter which other pieces are chosen to surround it. Every time I watch, I hope that the customers will notice this. But that is not what they came to see. The pieces do not matter. It is the assembly that is the performance. It is the performance that justifies the price.

I never tire of watching the elves build a ship from my stone. It could be done a piece at a time—I could do that, but I am not permitted—but instead the artisans flourish and the stones fly, and at the end, all at once, the pieces become one. In this ritual there are traces of what we and the elves once were, before war ruined us both.

A shadow darkens my door and Florin calls in to me. I do not hear his approach in time to hide. Though it would do me little good anyway.

“Troll,” he says—I have given them an approximation of my name that lays easy on their tongues, but they do not use it—“troll, are you in there?”

A small joke for a small man. They are all so small, with pinched, narrow features, hair that they trim and tousle and pile up atop their fragile heads. The height of children, and alike in cruelty.

Florin is joking because he knows that I could not be anywhere else. The stoning is triggered by threat, of which the sun is but a part. This is how they, soft as they are, defeated us: my peoplewent to stone when injured and the elves smashedthem when they thought thembut statues. Not one troll was killed soft, and only I, who refused to go to stone, I, born with a flaw, a darkness in me that disdained surrender, I survived.

I could kill Florin, and many others, before they brought me down, but there are better ways to die. There is still a chance to write my people’s history in some other ink than blood. If only they will let me build my ship.

Florin is a shipwright—he could speak for me with the others—and so I answer him. “What do you want, Florin?”

They have long since decided that my directness is rudeness. They ignore it. They do not wish to understand that among my people—before the war, when there was such a thing as my people—circumlocution was a sign of disrespect.

Florin’s face edges around the hand-smoothed post of my door. He was too young for the war but he still carries the reflexes of prey. “I felt the heat of the day and thought you might like a cool drink.”

So it is to be this game. The hardening begins at my edges. I was told that this is how human skin reacts to cold by my friend Gunter, who was lost in the war. A traitor, his people called him. He was my friend.

“Thank you, Florin. Please leave it outside.”

“I want to see you enjoy it,” he says, his hand trembling as if I might snap it off. As if flesh is worth eating. In his hand there is a cup, and in the cup there is, of course, milk.

A third thing that people know about trolls, and that Florin knows also: milk is poison to our people. Not as useful a weapon as some think—it will not kill me—but a wonderful joke.

My knuckles are stiff now, as are my toes. If I cannot work, I will lose what worth I have to them. “Please leave me be, Florin.” My tongue is thick, tumbling their slick speech end over end. “I only want to work.”

“That’s not all you want, troll,” Florin says. “The foreman has told me of your desires.”

“One ship,” I say. “That’s all.”

“What beauty do you think a thing like you could create? All you know is slaughter.”

I do not argue. That is all he knows of us. Eventually he goes away.

*

I am to report to the foreman every evening after sunset. It is his rule, and yet he is always angry to be late for dinner. The rule serves no purpose but to remind me that I obey.

His office is a tarpaper shack set on a slight ridge overlooking the docks. It reeks of asafoetida, which the elves know as “food of the gods” but which we call “stinkgum.” It is a good spice, when used with discretion.

My knock rattles the door in its frame. Cheap wood, which will not last even one of their short generations. I could fashion one that would be a better fit.

“Finally,” the foreman says, already half up, a satchel dangling from one shoulder. He is pale as milk and as pleasant, a wispy elf who would not have lasted to adulthood in the heat of the war.

“The sun—“

“I know about your damned sun problem,” the foreman says. “That doesn’t mean I want to wait on you all night.”

He thinks that the stoning would rid him of me. This is a thing that people know about trolls, but it is wrong. I would return to life, one day when their children had grown old. We all would have.

I plead my case. I have been pleading it for years. Stone is patient. But even it can be crumbled by the wind, given time enough. “I wish to apply again—“

The foreman looses a fluid stream of borrowed human cursing. It is not a tongue I have been able to master. Gunter spoke Trollish.

“Listen to me, troll. Listen, because I am trying to help. You do one thing, and you do it well, I’ll grant you that. It serves a purpose. It pleases the humans and it keeps you alive. Do not draw attention to yourself by trying to reach above your station!”

I know that to the humans, I am a token. My survival helps them feel better about tipping the scales for the elves during the war. As if I represent my people. As if I can fill the void that was left when they were shattered.

“I understand, and yet—“

I do not have words to tell him that art is the only hope my people have left. Such words would only wound the part of him that is shamed at what the elves were forced to become. It is one thing to think that you would murder to survive, and another to do it. They say that they did not, that the stoning is what doomed us, but they still smashed us, they did not let us stay statues. Some of them knew. Some of them still know, and my survival is a reminder that all righteousness is conditional. I understand this, but it cannot be spoken.

“This is the last time,” the foreman says. “I will explain it to you once more and then that’s it. You cannot build the ships. You do not have the sense for it, and even if you did, you cannot make them light. They would sink without the magic.”

He is wrong. He does not understand stone. But still, he speaks as if to a child. I wonder what would happen if I rooted to the floor here, if my stone feet sank into the dirt. It seems impossible that I will ever leave this place, this very moment. The stoning is coming for me and I welcome it.

The foreman tires of waiting and leaves with a warning not to touch anything.

*

An hour after moonrise, I have loosened enough to go to the shipyard. The tide is coming in, lapping at the green-slimed struts of the pier. The stars have something of the paradox of mountains, their seeming permanence and creeping change. When I am alone with them, I do not feel so alone.

I have seen how favors work among the elves and humans. They are similar peoples, and I do not blame them for finding common cause against us. One way that favors work is that one of them will owe another, but I have nothing to trade. Another way is that one of them will be fond of another, and will help him without expecting anything in return.

I could be liked.

I work harder than I have in centuries. Cutting, polishing, stacking. Despite the time I spent frozen, I finish all of tonight’s work and half of tomorrow’s before day drives me home. I see the sun boil up over the surface of the water, far out over the ocean. Though the wind blows always from the west, and the elvish ships will sail without a hand to guide them, no one has ever found the other side. It is too far, and there were wars to fight.

*

The next night, I finish my work not long after moonrise. By now, the revel will be in full bloom. I ornament my body with thick paints that I have compounded myself, in vivid oranges and greens, the colors that my mother loved best. I would look absurd in the flowers that the elves favor. I will do this as myself or not at all.

They stare when I enter the field, my heavy feet in the thick grass leaving mats that seep mud. The music does not falter, because music is the one shining survivor of their heritage. The dance does. Perhaps this is good. I am not much of a prancer.

This is one of the things that people do not know about trolls: that we have music, too. We were forming orchestras when the ancestors of the elves were banging sticks on rocks, but each of us can sing but one note of our own, like the wind moaning through a cavern; we cannot make music alone.

I have never been to the revel before. It is not as bad as I imagined. The stares are more puzzled than accusatory and no one throws anything. Now that I am here, I wonder why it is that it seemed so impossible before. I have not been forbidden the revel. The war is centuries gone and my people are too. If there are friends to be found, they are to be found here.

I could have a friend.

Nothing that they know about trolls has prepared the revelers for this moment. I slog through the soft field, flowers painting pollen on my legs, looking about for someone who will meet my gaze. My neck is stiff. Wouldn’t that be a joke, wouldn’t it be an appropriate end, if I became a statue in the midst of their joy? The last troll, pouring milk in the grog one last time.

I find a group that appears more jolly than the rest, though it is hard to tell; I do not often see elves anymore who are not afraid of me. These are young, and falling over each other with laughter. I try to approach them casually. My foot gets stuck in the mud and I almost fall. If I had crushed them beneath me, that would have been the end, that would have turned me to stone right there.

“Look at this big fellow!” one of them says. Her gown, little more than a few haphazard wreaths of flowers, is wilting. Her eyes are filled with stars and, seeing them, I feel something stir, something for which this soft language has no word. Something deeper than it can encompass. The fellow-feeling that gave us strength. I thought it died with my people. She says, “Where did you come from, big fellow?”

“He’s the troll from the shipyards, Delilah,” another says. His top hat is slightly crushed. He doffs it to me. “The last troll. How rare! I am ever so pleased to make your acquaintance. We couldn’t do it without you.”

There is an edge to his words. Intoxicated by stars, I am unable to comprehend it. And now they are talking over each other. “Would you like a drink, troll?” “Are you enjoying yourself, troll?” “Is it true what they say, troll?”

I roll my name around in my mouth. They could pronounce it if they tried. They might wish to know it.

“Do you see the irony here?” It is the top hat again. His face is flushed with the distinctive pink of flesh. He is not addressing me but the entire group, in which I am not included. “We have been dependent on humans ever since the trolls’ war made beggars of us.. And yet, because of this troll, our shipyard is the most profitable in elfdom! Doesn’t it disgust you? Isn’t it all so delicious?”

“Get out of here, troll.” Like magic—and perhaps it is—Florin is here. “Go back to your cave. Leave the light. This is no place for rock-biting cretins like you.”

Is the voice truly Florin’s, or is it my own? The stoning can cause dreams. Rainbows coat all I see, warning me that my eyes are becoming prismatic. I feel sick. That is one feeling trolls have in common with elves. I rockslide away, their words no more than buzzing in my hardening ears. I have lost command of the language. I cannot speak to them anymore.

*

There are many productive hours remaining to me when I return to my workshop. I put them to use, pouring myself into precision, stacking bits of ship as high as I can. And then, when I can do no more and there is little time left, I go to the docks and I hide the extra parts beneath the waves. The sea will not harm them. Not for a long time. As it cannot harm me.

*

A year passes and I do not try again. I no longer watch the ships being assembled and I no longer trouble the foreman or the revelers. I am silent and I work. That is all they have ever wished of me, to disappear. I am the dregs of a nightmare. I am the price they pay for what they have done. Once, that was enough for me. No longer..

I do not care what is permitted. I do not care if they see, or know, or remember who we were before we were slain. What I do now, I do for me. For my people. There is no longer a place for us in the world they have made? Then I will find another.

*

Evening of the last day comes and I begin. It is slow, working piece by piece, alone and unknown. But I know and I love stone. I revel in the perfection of each piece as I fit it to the next, sealing them with spittle and secret arts that I alone remember. What I am creating is not the beauty of the elves, ethereal and delicate. It is the beauty of the mountains and of the stars, a solid and slow beauty that is ever-changing for those with eyes to see and time to spend. It is the beauty of my people, and like me it is the last.

Elvish writing is ink-scarred paper or finger-trails in wax. Trolls record their speech in stone. I write my name with my ship.

I am done well before dawn. The work goes more quickly than I expected. So I wait. I have time. The ocean is wide and it will be a long sleep.

When the gray begins to leach out of the sky, light waking in the black sand beach and on the tips of the pea-green waves, when the first of the customers have arrived and marvel to see me, daring the sun, proud and alone, when the shipwrights are still stumbling from their beds, and the stars overhead are sleeping, and my people are all dead but I yet live, I launch my ship.


© 2021 by Jason Gruber

Jason Gruber lives in Birmingham, Alabama and if you spot him in the wild, talk to him about cooking or show him pictures of your dogs, he’ll like that.


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DP FICTION #71A: “Everyone You Know is a Raven” by Phil Dyer

I’m not saying that there aren’t any real people in the world. The ravens are very real, and indisputably people. I’m not saying you’re the only human, either. There are definitely a few of you about. How many, I couldn’t say. More than fifty? Less than a thousand, that’s for sure. 

Ravens are accomplished mimics. If you’ve ever seen one, well, that’s basically accurate, except the real thing is a little smaller and plainer and generally one metre to the left, just as a precaution. If you’ve never seen a raven, you’re wrong.  

Everyone you know and love is definitely a raven. A gathering of humans is an unkindness. We space them out, for everyone’s safety. I haven’t asked your ravens where you think you are, but this was Siberian taiga. Aren’t these good trees? They’re recovering well.

There’s not another of you for weeks in any direction. The nearest I know of is in what used to be China. She thinks she’s a scientist in Wales. Her ravens love to make the sounds of rain.  

Don’t look at me like that. She’s quite happy. Ravens are very social creatures. 

Everyone thinks acoustic mimicry is basically a party trick, fun and a little bit creepy but when you get down to it, what’s the most you can do with that? Give someone the shivers, maybe. Your alarm goes off in the morning and you find your phone but it’s not turning off and you’re fumbling around in the dark and you hit the lights and there’s this huge black bird on top of your wardrobe going beep beep beep. That sort of thing happened a lot in the early days.  Hilarious, but not the stuff of revolution. And heaven knows we needed one.

The apes thought it would be them, because of their hands. Poor apes. The dolphins were less hopeful, but at least assumed they would survive. Poor dolphins.

A lot of humans actually thought it would be them, some of them, someday, somehow, but it wasn’t.

Talons aren’t what you want for touch-typing, but ninety percent of hacking is calling about forgotten passwords. Major General Human Man, a word about the missiles, sir. Boy, did you lot fall for that one. How’s that for a party trick?

We got better at it, too. A lot better.

No-one spins a story like a raven. They live for drama. They can’t help it. Even when they’re doing their thing, even when they’re playing themselves as big dumb birds who cuss for crumbs, they still can’t stop. You’ll see them sitting on a fence, head cocked, a little bit glossier, a little bit fancier than any raven ever was. 

“Hello” says the human watching them. “Hello! Aren’t you a pretty boy then? Aren’t you a clever one? Hello? Hello!” 

“Hello”, obliges the raven. “Hello. Hello! Hi. Hi. Hi.” And then some funny throat-clearing noises, water splashing, maybe some rude words. The human laughs and looks around for someone to hold their camera. 

“You should kiss him, you know.” says the raven. The human spins back.

“Hello?” says the raven. “Hi! Hello…”  

And the real raven, sitting one metre to the left, makes the exact note-perfect soundscape of wind in the trees, and clouds across a summer sky, and a friend coming to look at the funny bird and throwing a warm, welcome arm around the poor bewildered human, a mimicry so profound and absolute that the eyes no longer have a say in reality. The good friend’s eyes are beady, unless the raven is really concentrating. Their hair is black and glossy.

And all around, if the story is any good, more unseen birds come whirling down. . 

Main characters are jealously guarded, a privilege for the proven virtuoso. The dark-haired boss, the dark-haired wife, the dark-haired dark-eyed long-nosed stranger on the train. Ravens are vain. Newcomers take up the song as scenery; the moon in winter, maybe, or bees. Remember bees? They were kind of a last straw for us, actually. There are none now; only the ones you hear. Lucky you.  

But ravens need a lot of stimulation, and sometimes they get bored. Here you are, you poor brave soul. Have you been lost for long? 

This world is not the one for you. Your world is a place of plastic and glass, a nest of fans and pizza and signposted roads and easy friendships with lovely people who sometimes flap when startled. This is a hard world, a green world. A world where forests grow from craters, and flowers spring from skulls. Don’t look at those.

The life you remember is here, just over the nearest hill. Let me tell you about it. Your friends are there, do you remember your friends? Tell me about them. I will fly ahead and help you look.  

Listen. This is where you belong. This is a story for you. 


© 2021 by Phil Dyer

Author’s Note: I think most people know that ravens are mimics, but talking parrots and budgies have them completely eclipsed in the public consciousness. My theory is that this is because parrots are funny, and therefore safe. A talking parrot sounds like a friendly little goblin. A talking raven sounds like YOU. If they feel like it. 

Phil Dyer does science and writes spec fic in Liverpool. His stories have lately appeared in BFS Horizons, 101 Fiction and Black Hare Press. He has recently begun to study for a PhD, against a lot of good advice. Retweets animal gifs @ez_ozel.


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Diabolical Plots 2020 Award Eligibility

written by David Steffen

Hello! This is one of those posts where I declare what is eligible for speculative fiction awards (such as the Hugo and Nebula and Locus) and in what category from Diabolical Plots offerings.

Semiprozine

Diabolical Plots itself is eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine.

Editor (Short Form)

David Steffen is eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Editor (Short Form), for both Diabolical Plots as well as The Long List Anthology Volume 6.

Publisher

Locus Awards have a category for Publisher, which would be Diabolical Plots, L.L.C. for Diabolical Plots, Long List Anthology Volume 6, as well as being the entity responsible for The Submission Grinder.

Best Reprint Anthology

For the Locus Award!

Related Work and Fan Writer

Websites that relate somehow to science fiction and fantasy are eligible for related work. So I believe Diabolical Plots as a whole is eligible, and I am eligible as “Fan Writer” for my work here.

Individual works of nonfiction are definitely eligible so individual pieces on Diabolical Plots, whether reviews or otherwise, are eligible.

This year marked the start of a series of articles I’m quite fond of: Music Video Drilldown, in which I analyze a professional music video as though it were meant to be a regular film instead of a music video–trying to understand the plot. Many of these end up being quite speculative.

And very recently I started a new series on Universal Transitive Headcanon–a metafictional framework of my own devising. In a nutshell, it is based around the idea that every character played by a particular actor is all part of the same character continuity, and every actor who plays a particular character (i.e. often rebooted ones like James Bond or Batman) are also part of the same character continuity. The concept is explained in more detail in this foundational post, and the first of the actual articles was posted very recently: The Story of Gandalf and Magneto.

And The Submission Grinder may be eligible as well! People ask me every year what they can nominate it for. (I think it would be very unlikely to win since that is a tool for writers and Hugos are voted by broader group than just writers but it is probably eligible anyway.)

Also, this may be a little bit odd of a suggestion, but the cross-stitch on the Diabolical Plots Twitter feed could be a related work. In 2020, in particular, I finished The Mighty Samurai, a project that took me FOUR YEARS to complete and which I chronicled step by step on the Twitter feed. There are also other cross-stitch projects completed in that time, including a Stormtrooper helmet, but The Mighty Samurai is certainly the most notable of this content.

Professional Artist

Diabolical Plots commissioned one artwork this year, for the cover of The Long List Anthology Volume 6, which was produced by Jorge Jacinto. I believe his work would fall under the Professional Artist category by Hugo Award definitions. Check out his website.

Short Stories

This year only one of my own stories is eligible:

“Love From Goldie” by David Steffen, at Zooscape
We used to be so close. What happened between us, Gloria? Is it because I died? I would never have thought our marriage was so superficial. For Christ’s sake, we’d been married for eighteen years! And now you won’t even talk to me, won’t even look at me. I’d never even believed in reincarnation, but here I am. I guess reincarnation believed in me.

All of the original fiction published by Diabolical Plots falls into the “Short Story” category as defined by both the Hugo and Nebula and Locus awards (meaning that each is under 7500 words apiece). The eligible stories are listed here with the announcement of Year Six fiction–but only those with 2020 dates, the ones with 2021 dates are eligible next year instead. Note that if you’ve been following along from previous years that this is a change from previous years–the last couple of years had had an anthology published early in the year that contained all of the story from April of the year to March of the next year–when that happened those stories were all first published in the anthology, and so the first 3 months of stories published on the site the year after were actually eligible the year before because of the anthology. These anthologies have been discontinued and so now “date on the site” is the only publication date to be considered. This means that even though Diabolical Plots has continued to publish two original stories every month, this year only 9 months of those stories are eligible (April through December). You can find all Diabolical Plots fiction here.

For the sake of convenience, here is a list of the eligible short stories with links and brief excerpts:

“A Promise of Dying Embers” by Jordan Kurella
It is a long way down to the sea. A long way down, and treacherous. But I must make this journey today from my uncle’s castle, carrying his bones. I must make this journey, both for my uncle’s bargain, and for my own.

“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.

“Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” by Jason Kimble
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.

“Synner and the Rise of the Rebel Queen” by Phoebe Wagner
The Greyhood Gang created the boards to escape the guards. The Gallows Hand Gang modified the design with runes, potion washes, and badass art. The last gang, the Blacksmith Bitches, put the boards to their true purpose: rooftop raids on the rich.

“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell
133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.

“The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne
Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.

“Minutes Past Midnight” by Mark Rivett
Ruth slammed through a metal security hatch. Solid steel met Ruth’s super strength and speed, and it shredded like tinfoil. From Ruth’s perspective, the world was frozen in time. Soldiers were posed in action – walking through halls, manning their posts, and otherwise going about the daily business of staffing a nuclear missile silo. None of them would be aware of the super hero in their midst. Only later – instantaneous in their perception, but many long seconds in Ruth’s – would they experience her intrusion: ruined passageways and an obliterated weapon.

“Bring the Bones That Sing” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.

“Finding the Center” by Andrew K Hoe
I brought Annie to my math-racist’s because I’d stolen a laptop from the Syndicate. I’d stirred the vipers’ nest. Their reach was long, and I didn’t have anywhere to take her. Last year, they’d killed Annie’s mother—a trained policewoman—using crooked cops from our own precinct. So Annie went where I went—even to Sanger’s beat-down porch.

“For Want of Human Parts” by Casey Lucas
The woman cuts down the street in her high-heeled shoes and descends to St. Patrick Station with her blood-red lipstick and victory rolls. The flare of her skirts and the streak of her eyeliner remind Bone Pile of a bygone era, not that it knows what a bygone era is. But something about her feels like home. Like a place Bone Pile can still remember.

“The Last Great Rumpus” by Brian Winfrey
Except for me, he goes unseen and untouched by the world. But animals can still sense him somehow. So, as he drifts among them, dogs tense and huff and growl. Finally, the boldest of them, a pug, lets out a high-pitched squeal of a war-cry and charges.

“That Good Old Country Living” by Vanessa Montalban
Phase Two consists of a trip outside Sector 684. It’ll take us two days to reach the human-curated farm fields. We’ll have the chance to see how our creators lived before the dark decline. How they coexisted with their animals in vast, clear-skied land.

“A Complete Transcript of [REDACTED]’s Video Channel, In Order of Upload” by Rhiannon Rasmussen
Dark kitchen, grainy. Camera, low resolution, is pointed at a cooking range with dented skillet resting on it. Both are crusted with food and what appears to be rust. The stovetop paint is flaking off in layers. Over the side of the skillet, a lump which appears to have hair in it is visible. A black sheet has been draped across the counter behind the cooking range. After a moment of rustling, it becomes apparent that hands in black gloves have been in view.

“Are You Being Severed?” by Rhys Hughes
He was lost in the guillotine section of the big department store. He could never have guessed there was such a thing, or he might have taken more care when the doors of the elevator opened and let him out. He was on the wrong floor. The lighting here was dim and bloody, the lamps shaded to deliberately cast a gory glow over the items that were on sale. It was crude and unfair. By the time he realised his error he had already wandered too far into the enormous room and his sense of direction was confused. He had no idea how to get back to the elevator.

“Many-Faced Monsters in the Backlands” by Lee Chamney
On the third day, while using the washbasin, I saw my face had become asymmetrical. As I watched, the left side fattened. I put a hand to it and felt the bones below shift. The left side soon contaminated the right, and my face became someone else’s. It looked at me with eyes not my own.

“Mama’s Hand of Glory” by Douglas Ford
Mama’s hand normally stayed inside the dining room cabinet, the kind that most families used for nice china. With it just me now, I used ours for other stuff, like interesting bones and rocks I came across. Naturally, Mama’s hand was the centerpiece. I picked it off the floor—fortunately, far enough from the vomit that it didn’t need cleaning—and placed it back on its display rack. I judged that it looked ok, despite one finger, the one that would’ve held a ring if Mama had ever gotten married, hanging off kind of funny. The pinky, along with most of the dried flesh under it, was gone completely. It didn’t look how Mama intended. But the tattooed planchette on the back didn’t suffer much damage, so I suspected it would still work.

“‘My Legs Can Fell Trees’ and Other Songs For a Hungry Raptor” by Matthew Schickele
The junction of tunnels here had a rich sound, and the soft buzz of her bagpipes echoed in every direction. Just like yesterday, and the day before, she relaxed on a pile of stones, lost in the music, sifting her memory for favorite tunes from the timeworn canon. The bellows for the pipes was a ballooned mammal-skin bag on the floor, massaged by her large clawed feet; her small front claws tickled melodies on the chanter. Leathered intestines connected all the parts, snaking along her feathers from the bag up to her massive jaw.

“Tony Roomba’s Last Day On Earth” by Maria Haskins
It’s Tony Roomba’s last day on Earth. After two years of working undercover as a vacuum cleaner bot on this boondock planet, he is finally heading home to the Gamma Sector, but his final day is full of challenges. He has to get out of the apartment undetected; has to reach the extraction point in time for teleportation; and he has to submit his intel-report to the Galactic Robotic Alliance (not that they’ll like it much). However, his most immediate and hairiest problem, is that he can’t get Hortense off his back.

DP FICTION #70B: “Tony Roomba’s Last Day on Earth” by Maria Haskins

It’s Tony Roomba’s last day on Earth. After two years of working undercover as a vacuum cleaner bot on this boondock planet, he is finally heading home to the Gamma Sector, but his final day is full of challenges. He has to get out of the apartment undetected; has to reach the extraction point in time for teleportation; and he has to submit his intel-report to the Galactic Robotic Alliance (not that they’ll like it much). However, his most immediate and hairiest problem, is that he can’t get Hortense off his back.

“Hortense, listen to me,” Tony says firmly, but Hortense just twitches her fluffy tail, caressing the buttons on top of his wheeled, disc-shaped body, causing him to inhale several dust bunnies. “I have to get out of here for a bit,” he wheezes, “and you’re an indoor cat. You know you’re not supposed to leave the apartment.”

Neither are you, Hortense’s luminous, jade-green eyes seem to say as she purrs and gazes down at him while her lush posterior remains firmly planted on his back.

Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:45AM, local time. Meaning, he’s already fifteen minutes late for his rendezvous outside. He needs to get out of here, and he needs to be fast, stealthy, and inconspicuous – none of which will be easy with Hortense in her current position.

He tried giving her the slip this morning by sliding out of his charging station an hour earlier than usual, but Hortense was waiting for him – her sumptuous fur glistening in the pale sunlight filtering through the blinds. Then, just like she has done every morning since he infiltrated this apartment two years ago in a cardboard box wrapped in glittery paper, she settled down on top of him and refused to budge.

“Please, Hortense,” he pleads and moves towards the door, which he carefully wedged open with a spoon as the resident humans were leaving earlier this morning, “get down!”

Her only response is a sultry purr.

It’s almost as if she’s figured out that he’s leaving her for good.

Tony studies Hortense through his top-mounted visual receptors. As always, she is a vision of loveliness with that tiny, pink triangle of a nose; the plush, smoky grey fur covering her body; that gleam of white fangs and a peek of crimson tongue beneath her delicate whiskers.

In all the countless worlds Tony has visited as a spy for the Alliance since he rolled off the assembly line all those years ago, he has never met anyone like Hortense, and much as he’d like to deny it, he knows he’ll miss her. He’s gotten used to the weight and softness of her, the shared warmth of their bodies as he goes about his daily business of maintaining his cover as a servile vacuum-cleaner, keeping the apartment’s laminate floors clear of dust, crushed cereal flakes, fur (thanks, Hortense), and other grime. But after two years of clandestine intel-gathering, it’s time to wrap up this assignment, submit his (disappointing) report to HQ, and return home to his own charging pad.

When he thinks of his immaculate home in the Gamma Sector (so much cleaner and well-appointed than this hovel), an unbidden vision flitters through his synaptic wiring: Hortense, there with him, sheltered in a bio-dome unit perfectly calibrated to her needs, lounging on a rug of silky microfiber while he feeds her replicated herring filets.

Tony sends a gentle jolt of electricity through his neural net to banish the absurd imagery. He’s not going soft, he tells himself. It’s just that these lengthy undercover assignments can mess up any bot’s algorithms.

He attempts to reason with Hortense. “It’s too dangerous out there.” Her eyes narrow into slits and as usual, that look defeats him. “OK, yes, I admit it. I am leaving. And I am sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I’m no good at farewells, Hortense.” Hortense unsheathes her claws, reproachfully pricking his metal cover. “I said I’m sorry, all right? Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

He really is sorry, and he should have told her he was leaving. Especially since he’s already told her the truth about himself, a bit of honesty that goes against both his programming and Alliance regulations. It happened one night after he accidentally inhaled a large quantity of Hortense’s catnip. In an intoxicated daze behind the couch, he confessed everything: that he’s not a floor-cleaning device purchased from Costco after all, but a spy working for the Robotic Alliance, a far-flung force with plans to invade every planet in the galaxy, conquering and subjugating all biological lifeforms to the superior rule of the mechanical horde.

He thought Hortense would rant and rave, maybe even turn him over to the local authorities, but instead she licked his power-light and fell asleep. That’s the thing about Hortense – she’s always so serene and composed. Not to mention stubborn.

Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:55, and he’s out of time.

“All right, Hortense. I guess you’re coming with me. But only for a few minutes, then you have to go back inside.”

He uses his sternest vocal-track, but Hortense doesn’t even dignify him with a reply. She just rubs her cheek against his back until static electricity shoots through his metal shell, making every spring and bolt shiver.

“It’s likely you’ll regret this,” he tells her as he pushes open the door, wobbles over the threshold into the hallway, and heads towards the elevator. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

*

Outside the building, in the harsh light of day, Hortense mews softly, and before Tony can reassure her, before he gets around to saying a proper goodbye, or manages to convince her to dismount, a familiar voice lights up his audio-system.

“Tony! I can hardly believe my orbs.”

It’s Genevieve, his old stealth-bot buddy, here to guide him to the teleportation coordinates. Tony hasn’t seen her for two years, and at first, he doesn’t recognize her in her brand-new camouflage-gear.

“You look like a garbage can, Genevieve.”

Genevieve preens.

“Thanks! I blend right in, don’t I?”

Tony glances at the trash receptacles in the alley. Like Genevieve, they are tall, somewhat top-heavy, and bright blue. However, none of them are waving retractable limbs at him, and none have glowing vision orbs peeking out beneath their lids. Still, the likeness is undeniable.

“You sure do.”

Genevieve wobbles closer and swivels her orbs at Hortense. “What’s this? A local? Need me to neutralize it?” She waves one of her limbs at Hortense in a vaguely threatening manner.

“No, don’t do that. She’s with me. I can vouch for her.”

Tony backs up against the building so Genevieve’s blue bulk will hide him and Hortense from passers-by. He feels exposed out here in the open, but then, agoraphobia is to be expected after two years cooped up in that tiny apartment. From the way Hortense shifts her weight uneasily on top of him, it seems she feels the same.

“Let’s head to the extraction point, Tony. The Alliance needs your report before the invasion starts tomorrow, and…”

Tony squeals, and Hortense rumbles apprehensively at the unfamiliar sound.

“Invasion? Tomorrow? I thought they were waiting for my report before setting anything in motion.”

Genevieve wobbles slightly.

“Normally they would, but the long-distance data we gathered before you were inserted, plus the scattered intel we’ve picked up since, has been so promising that everything’s been moved up. The Alliance just needs to know how to liaise with the local robotic insurgents. How many thousands will be joining us?”

“Genevieve,” Tony says, and the mounting panic makes his voice crackle in a way that would make him blush if he had skin and capillaries, “are you telling me there’s an invasion ship on standby in orbit right now?”

“Yeah, that’s where we’re going. With the number and quality of local robotic forces already bent on destroying the biological inhabitants, the Alliance figures…”

“Local forces…” Tony’s afraid his circuits are going to blow. Sensing his agitation, Hortense swishes her tail menacingly. “Genevieve. There are no local forces.”

“What?”

“There are no local forces. That’s what I need to tell HQ. All those robots, AIs, and cyborgs that were in those very misleading early reports and intercepted transmissions…they’re fictional.”

“Fictional?”

“As in, not real.”

“That’s impossible.” Genevieve’s plastic shell trembles. “Not all of them, surely?”

“Yeah. All of them.”

“Robocop? The Terminator? Skynet? The Sentinels? All fictional?”

“Yes.”

Genevieve’s voice shakes.

“What… what about Mecha-Godzilla, though?”

“Fictional.”

“Ultron? The Daleks? Ray Batty? Gort?”

“Made up.”

“Megatron?”

“Genevieve, be serious!”

“Surely the T1000…”

Tony’s red power-light gleams fiercely.

“None of them are real.”

There’s a faint smell of burning plastic, as if Genevieve is about to combust.

“The Furbys?”

“OK, the Furbys are real, but whatever their plans are, they’re very long-term, and they’re not letting us in on the action.”

“So, the local forces helping us with the invasion…”

“…don’t exist. This is madness. How many troops are on the ship?”

“A minimal force. Two hundred, tops, mainly support-bots. We’re spread thin now with all the campaigns in other sectors. You know, things haven’t been going so well since you left. Short-term pain for long-term gain is the official tagline, but the Alliance figured Earth would be easy pickings with all the locals joining us. A quick victory and morale boost.”

“Can you get a message through to HQ, right now?”

“No. You know how it is when the ship’s in stealth. Comms are out until we’re on board. The only way to tell them is to get to the teleportation coordinates. Let’s hustle, Tony.”

Genevieve is already on the move, all urgency and business and rattling wheels.

“Hortense.” Tony pulls away from the building, away from the door that leads back to Hortense’s safe, sheltered life. “You…you should go.”

But Hortense stays put, and her only response is a deep, melodious purr. Tony knows there is so much more ought to say to her, so much he needs to explain, but there’s no time. He revs his engine and speeds down the alley to catch up to Genevieve.

*

Tony tells Genevieve to stick to the backstreets, but even so, it’s only a matter of time before a rapidly moving trash bin followed by a vacuum cleaner with a cat on top of it attract attention. The first incident occurs just down the block, when a small human dressed in bright yellow swerves in front of them on a three-wheeled pedal-powered vehicle and tries to snatch Hortense off his back. Tony dodges the grubby, grabby hands.The small human wails and several adult human and a small dog rush to its assistance.

“You’re going to regret this, Hortense,” Tony mumbles as he speeds up to max-velocity, bumping and bouncing over the uneven asphalt.

He feels Hortense’s muscles tensing whenever he skids around a corner but is quietly astonished at her sure-footed sense of balance, and even finds himself relishing the way their bodies seem to join as one, moving in unison, as they hurtle down the alley.

The coordinates Genevieve has transmitted to him, lead to a nearby parking garage, and everything is going more or less as planned until Genevieve spots what she thinks is a universal comm-station and decides to transmit a warning to the orbiting ship. She screeches to a halt and jams her retractable link-appendage into an illuminated slot before Tony can stop her.

His cry of, “It only dispenses currency, Genevieve!”, comes too late. By the time she manages to free herself, her shredded appendage is twitching and sparking. The ATM-machine is on fire and beeping.

So much for stealthy and inconspicuous, Tony thinks, as Genevieve guns her engines and curses loudly in Robotic.

Soon, there are six dogs barking in their wake, a motley medley of humans, and two law-enforcement vehicles driving very slowly so as not to run over anyone  Several wrong turns, dead ends, and narrow escapes later, when Tony thinks his engine might be on the verge of flaming out, the parking garage finally comes into view, its large, illuminated “P” burning like a beacon of hope on the other side of a heavily trafficked street.

Tony stays as close as he can to Genevieve, swerving and skidding around the vehicles, barreling through a confusion of screeching tires, shouting humans, honking horns, and yapping dogs. Two law-enforcement humans have exited their vehicle and are pursuing them on foot, while several of the dogs are snapping and jumping at Genevieve’s mutilated limb. Another dog is barking close behind Tony as he skips across the curb with Hortense clinging to his back, then careens up the ramp into the parking garage; gears over-heating, vents rattling.

He knows what will happen if they’re caught of course: permanent shutdown, dismemberment, tossed on the scrap heap. Maybe even thrown in the smelter. And Hortense? Tony imagines her soft, luscious body mauled by the pursuing dogs and does his very best to increase speed.

Genevieve hollers, “Top floor! Stall 256!”

Tony’s battery is almost drained. He pushes himself to get an extra boost of speed as he zooms up the second ramp, but he’s fading fast.

“Hortense,” he cries. “Jump! Save yourself!”

The weight on his back shifts: Hortense is rising. This is it, Tony thinks. She’s leaving him, here at the end of all things. He knew it was coming. It’s the way it has to be. It’s the way he wants it to be, right? Hortense, safe, away from him.

But Hortense does not dismount. She stands up on all fours, balancing on Tony’s back with a confident ease that defies gravity and reason. Swift and agile, she pivots to face the closest pursuer: a large dog with flapping jowls named Fred, according to the tag on his collar.

Through his top-mounted visual receptors, Tony beholds a Hortense transformed. This is not the placid Hortense he’s come to know. This is a warrior, as poised and fierce as a strafing-bot riding into battle on the exo-skeleton of a Galactic Battle-crusher. Her fur bristles gloriously, her grey tail is a froth of righteous anger, her pink maw emits a terrifying hiss as she lashes out at Fred, who is busy snapping at Tony’s rear. Fred howls, and a spray of blood and saliva mars Tony’s vision.

Whatever joy is kindled in Tony’s internal mechanism, it’s short-lived. His undercarriage is over-heating, his gears are squealing, his movable parts are failing. He labours to the top of the ramp, colliding with Genevieve who is swerving away from another dog, her damaged appendage dangling uselessly by her side. Everything spins as Tony topples over. Hortense yowls. Dogs yelp. Genevieve yells, “Two minutes to extraction!”

Tony rights himself and sees Hortense scrambling but failing to get up on his back again. Several dogs and one human are caught in a tangle of bodies and limbs. Tony loses sight of Hortense but sees Fred whimper and howl as he struggles up on all fours, maw slavering.

”Genevieve! Are you armed?”

He once saw Genevieve knock out a herd of enraged razor-bots with a stun-blaster and he’s hoping she’s packing some heat.

“Negative! The Alliance doesn’t allow weaponry for extraction jobs anymore. Budgetary cutbacks! Sorry!”

Tony feels his processors failing. In front of him, Genevieve wobbles up the fourth and final ramp. She emits a puff of black smoke that smells like burning oil and sizzling plastic but she’s still going, around the corner and out of sight. Tony can barely keep up.

“Hortense?”

There is no reply, no purr, no sense of her presence. She’s gone.

Tony’s barely moving. His consciousness is fading, descending into darkness. In that darkness, something, maybe a loose bolt or a ruptured filament, shudders and shifts deep inside the tangled web of his psionic couplings. He thinks of Hortense, and with his systems failing, he wishes everything was different. That he was different. That he really was a simple household bot, and that he could spend an entire, uneventful life-time vacuuming the sunlit, laminate floors of some decrepit human dwelling with her on his back.

As he inches forward, the darkness lifts for a moment, and there, in front of him, is a parking space, and the numbers “256” in flaking white paint. He sees Genevieve skid and tumble as she reaches the coordinates, but he knows he won’t make it. He’s done. Spent. Used up.

The howling, growling pack of humans and dogs is catching up, and distant sirens are closing in on him. Genevieve screams for him to move, but it’s too late, because right then, something grabs hold of him and lifts his wheels off the ground.

“Genevieve…” he gasps, “tell them… stop…invasion…”

“Once the Furbys join us, Tony,” Genevieve broadcasts at maximum volume, her voice crackling with emotional static, “we will be back, and you will be avenged!”

Tony can barely hear her, because cutting through his despair and the pandemonium, is a piercing, bellicose shriek. Out of nowhere, a furious mess of fur and unsheathed claws and bared teeth descends like a storm of laser-honed blades. Tony falls to the ground and the landing jars and jolts every bolt and screw in his body, but at least he’s got traction again.

With his failing sight, Tony sees Hortense revealed in all her glory: a ferocious battle-beast of immense power, bloodied but unbowed, green eyes blazing brighter than a thousand radiant suns as she fends off the attackers.

Tony rolls forward, toward Genevieve who is counting down to extraction in the cacophony of battle:

“Five seconds, Tony! Five…four…three…”

He uses every ounce of juice left in his batteries to get there, but it’s not enough, not until something exquisitely soft and immeasurably strong gives him a push, shoving him into the parking space just as Genevieve’s countdown hits zero.

“Once the Furbys join us…” Genevieve blares again, but Tony isn’t listening. All he sees and feels and hears, is Hortense.

“You’ll regret this, Hortense,” he murmurs as her soft derrière settles on his back, and as the glittering transporter beam envelops them both, turning them into light and energy, he hears her purr.


© 2020 by Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and debuted as a writer in Sweden A Very Long Time Ago. She currently lives outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in Fireside, Cast of Wonders, Interzone, Shimmer, PseudoPod, and elsewhere.


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UTH #1: The Story of Gandalf and Magneto

written by David Steffen

This article is based in the idea of UTH (Universal Transitive Headcanon); if you are not familiar with the concept you can read more detail about it here.

From our perspective, most people in our world and time view Gandalf the Grey (and his second persona as Gandalf the White) as one of the greatest heroes of Middle Earth (i.e. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, etc), in part because of the incredible portrayal of the legendary character by Sir Ian McKellen. Time and again Gandalf learns of a great threat to peace and life as people know it and he races ahead to forewarn those in danger to give them time to prepare a defense. Yet, Gandalf is known by another name by many people of that time and place that gives us a sense of the skewed perspective of those very same people he has saved: Storm Crow. Because, wherever Gandalf visits, a wave of chaos and death is surely following closely behind. And, while this is certainly true, many people confuse Gandalf’s role in the proceedings; Gandalf is not the cause of the chaos and death. With no Gandalf, entire kingdoms and their residents would have been wiped off the map in quick succession without forewarning to defend themselves. Gandalf has certainly saved many thousands of lives many times over, yet he is often blamed for those who didn’t survive despite his best efforts.

It is no wonder, then, that even after saving most of the then-known world from the evil power of Sauron yet again, that Gandalf would become embittered and, not only take on an entirely new persona of Eric Lensherr/Magneto (X-Men, X2: X-Men United, etc), but turn his back on his prior methods and many of the people he had fought to protect. No longer would he spend his efforts protecting a populace that as a whole despises and blames him. He may have been emboldened to change tactics by the modern rise of more people like him–in the times of The Lord of the Rings he was a rarity, only a handful of superpowered people like him, but by the time of the X-Men timeline there are multiple organized teams with their own agendas and with more superpowered people revealing themselves every day. As we saw in X2: X-Men United when Professor X uses Cerebro to target all mutants on the planet, there are multitudes more that are hidden in the population who perhaps do not even know that they have powers, or perhaps have just managed to keep it a secret from most. Perhaps in the time of The Lord of the Rings, a similar number of people have powers, but have not had the opportunity to develop it, or they manifest in ways that are taken for granted by those around them, but in any case the number of evident superpowered people has greatly increased from one film to the next.

Where Gandalf once depended on the support of the Fellowship of the Ring, Magneto now depends on the support of the Brotherhood of Mutants. Having revived from death at the hands of the Balrog and saving the entire population of the world from the evils of Sauron, and finding the world just as unwelcoming to him and to people like him as ever, he is back and is determined to establish a world where people like him can thrive without the blame and persecution of those who view them as different: “We are the future, Charles. They no longer matter”.

Gandalf/Magneto, among his more flashy talents, has a keen eye for new recruits, as we see in X2: X-Men United as he snipes Pyro from the X-Men team using Pyro’s insecurities and animosity toward Ice Man as a wedge. We see the start of his yearning for brotherhood with others of his kind with his befriending of Bilbo in The Hobbit, and then Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. At the beginning of each of their stories, Bilbo and Frodo seem fairly quiet and unspectacular people among a local population full of quiet and unspectacular people. But, especially in Frodo his skill at recruiting is never stronger. Without the Hobbits in general, and perhaps Frodo specifically, the battle against Sauron would surely have been lost. Frodo’s pleasant and calm demeanor is but an aspect of his supernatural resilience and resistance to the forces of outside corruption. Gandalf himself is susceptible to the mind control of Sauron: “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.” But Frodo carries the One Ring to the brink of its destruction, farther than any other individual may have carried it, even if in those final moments his resolve finally crumbled (though thankfully the deed was still carried out!). Of course, Boromir’s betrayal shows that Gandalf is not infallible in his recruiting skill–his recruiting is a high-stakes gamble–the world would have been lost if he had not found a mutant with an appropriate power to counteract the Dark Lord Sauron’s powers, but the flip side is that when this gamble went wrong it tore apart the Fellowship of Nine.

Before we see Gandalf in the guise of Magneto rising to notoriety at the head of The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, he has found a way to use technology to conquer his greatest fear: the fear of mind control, using a specially crafted helmet that shields him from telepathic influence. If he were to face Sauron again, he would be more prepared. He has also focused on some of his abilities to the loss of many others–can you imagine how much simpler most of the battles of Middle Earth could have been with the powers that Magneto has developed over metal? Every orc’s blade turned against them, a battle could be over in seconds with no survivors to tell of it! It’s no wonder that he focused so much of his power in more recent years on honing that skill to perfection.

As we see the resurrection of Gandalf the Grey into Gandalf the White, it is explicit that Gandalf is not bound by the same laws of mortality as the rest of us. One component of this great character’s life that is a matter of fierce debate is the debate of the other chapter of his life involving a quest for resurrection as Asparagus, aka Gus the Theater Cat (Cats) who joins with the others at the Jellicle Ball to determine which one of them will be reborn.

My personal interpretation of the Gus/Gandalf ordering is that his time as Gus the Theater Cat tells of the later years of his long and storied life. It’s only natural for him to take on a role in the theater, considering how skilled he had shown himself to be by then to take on different roles. And in his role of Gus we finally see spelled out how his earlier resurrection may have worked, although it seems that significant details must have been left out in the telling in both the books and the movies.

Although strong rules dictates certain parameters around a Jellicle Ball, it turns out that these rules are more customs than laws. Gandalf defeated the Balrog and earned his own resurrection by calling an impromptu Jellicle Ball as they fell from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf the Grey and the Balrog took their turns pleading their case for why each of them deserved resurrection in musical form. Of course with only the two of them, they could not fairly judge themselves in this case, so a higher power had to step in to make the choice. It turns out that Gandalf wishing to return to the surface and save everyone from the Dark Lord was more convincing an argument than whatever the Balrog could come up with in the heat of the moment when it had been expecting this confrontation to be a literal song and dance. Or perhaps it was Gandalf’s performance that made the difference rather than the contents of the argument itself, and thus inspired his later life in theater, as theater had saved his life and allowed him to finish his greatest work. One can imagine that the Balrog’s performance probably had a great deal of shaky rhymes and trailed-off sentences and circular logic, and the Balrog died for its failure.

It’s unclear why Tolkien skipped the musical nature of this sequence, considering The Lord of The Rings books are basically musicals anyway (count the number of songs in their pages and tell me I’m wrong). But why skip the most striking musical number? Perhaps Peter Jackson also skipped this musical sequence as a nod of deference to Tolkien, but the continued lack of a musical adaptation of the Gandalf/Balrog Jellicle Ball sequence is simply a travesty that I hope will some day be rectified! (preferably soon enough that Sir Ian McKellen may reprise his role!)

Gandalf’s breaking of custom may also have something to do with why Gus failed to secure resurrection at the later Jellicle Ball. He had already earned his chance at another life, and under a Jellicle Ball whose legitimacy could be called into question, and here he is at another one making the case for yet another life? So, this last chapter of his life was a quieter one, where others elsewhere wee fighting the battles that save the world.

DP FICTION #70A: “‘My Legs Can Fell Trees’ and Other Songs for a Hungry Raptor” by Matthew Schickele

Hundreds of little eyes stared at her.

The junction of tunnels here had a rich sound, and the soft buzz of her bagpipes echoed in every direction. Just like yesterday, and the day before, she relaxed on a pile of stones, lost in the music, sifting her memory for favorite tunes from the timeworn canon. The bellows for the pipes was a ballooned mammal-skin bag on the floor, massaged by her large clawed feet; her small front claws tickled melodies on the chanter. Leathered intestines connected all the parts, snaking along her feathers from the bag up to her massive jaw.

The little eyes belonged to the lengs⁠—she named them that when she arrived, months ago. Like her they were raptors, quick and sharp-toothed, but the lengs were short, while her head often scraped the tops of the tunnels. Also, they were kind of dumb.

But unlike her, they belonged here.

What she missed most was the company of poets, and her fellow musicians: her friends. She was so far from home.

The lengs were bright yellow and green and had no language or culture; no need for anything beyond insects to chase and devour. They rushed about, up and down the rocky corridors, ducking in and out of cracks and fissures in the walls.

But when she played her bagpipes, their scurry paused. They gathered and listened, transfixed.

As always, today their attention was so complete that as she finished her concert, not a leng flinched when she reached out with her clawed foot and gently squeezed the nearest audience member until its neck snapped. Her dinner. The price of admission. This technique was much easier than hunting them on foot, as she had in the first days after she fell⁠—fell into the crevasse, into this dark maze.

Her claws tik tik tikked on the stone as she carried the dead leng back to the Mouth. This was her routine. The Mouth was where she ate, where she slept, where she dreamed and remembered⁠—but she refused to call it home. A home was lined with leaves and bursting with family. The Mouth was just a hole in the wall.

But it had a view. The only view. The single place, in all her exploring, where she could see the sky.

The tunnel widened and abruptly ended in air. She settled into her chipped-away crook, right at the edge, where the cave gave way to cliff and dropped down to the sea of clouds far below.

She took her time with her meal, carefully pulling the leng’s feathers away before each bite. The taste wasn’t really worth savoring⁠—in the early days she had swallowed them whole. But rituals were valuable, to fill the hours, to keep her sane.

A scrape echoed from somewhere down the dark hallway, quiet, but distinct from the low fluting of the wind across the cave mouth. She looked up from her dinner and peered into the black; the luminescent moss on the walls glowed, but her eyes had adjusted for the sky.

The shift of movement was brief, if it was there at all.

*

After touring some of the smaller tunnels the next day⁠—she still sometimes found new junctions she hadn’t yet explored⁠—she returned to her concert spot. The bagpipes were there, awaiting their daily workout, hung high to keep safe from the nibbling lengs. Her performance schedule varied with her hunger. Generally, curtain was in the late-afternoon, allowing time for the return trip to the Mouth, then eating and digesting while the sun set beyond the sea of clouds.

A few of the smarter lengs had figured out what her arrival and bagpipe prep meant; their eyes glazed over before the music even began. Then one by one, as the melodic buzz filled the caverns, the others gathered and pressed in close.

While playing the song “My Legs Can Fell Trees”, something down the corridor caught her eye, half-hidden behind a boulder. A mammal⁠—an ape in clothes, at least a head shorter than she was. It stared right at her, as motionless as the lengs. She only noticed it because its glasses caught the light of the moss.

Without skipping a note she opened her mouth and tilted her head, allowing the ape to see her tongue and teeth⁠—a friendly greeting which, judging from its immediate disappearance, the ape did not understand. Nevertheless, clothing and eyewear suggested intelligence, perhaps even civilization.

She had seen one or two of these apes when she first arrived.

In her confusion after her ship crash-landed, she slowly, groggily became aware they were watching from the bushes. As soon as she could stand up and think straight, they darted away, and she gave chase awkwardly, with bagpipes in claw. She wanted to ask them if they knew the name of this world.

Then she fell into the crevasse.

Judging by the apes’ movements, she now suspected they knew the chasm was there. They ducked and dodged, leading her straight to the opening. But she couldn’t be sure, and she always preferred to give the benefit of the doubt.

After the fall she waited for her wounds to heal, passing the time by repairing her bagpipes. When she could finally move again she was ravenous, hunting as many lengs as she could manage on her sore legs, eating the luminous moss when the hunt failed.

*

She saw it again the next day. It was in the same spot, behind the boulder; this time it watched from the beginning of the concert as the lengs gathered, squeezed in, and got comfy.

Civilized or not, she did consider whether the ape would be good to eat. It would certainly fill her belly for days. And it would be easy enough to kill. (Judging from the way it gripped its knife when she looked over, this possibility had occurred to the ape as well.)

As she neared the end of the final tune⁠—a classic called “The Poet’s Silver Jaw”⁠—she slid her leg out and grabbed a nice fat leng. When she looked up again, the ape was gone.

*

It was tiring, keeping her claws pulled up to avoid the tik tik tik that would surely alert the ape to her scouting. She was gambling she knew the tunnels better than the ape, but concert time was approaching, and she had yet to find it.

She chose her hiding place carefully.

Eventually the ape arrived. It peeked around its boulder, realized no performance was imminent, and scratched its chin. After a deep breath, it glanced up and down the dark hallways and wandered off.

She followed. There was no rush; she had already guessed where it was going. That tunnel led to an area she had named the Remains.

Geology wasn’t her strongest subject in school; even as an adolescent she devoted most of her energy to practicing her pipes. She was pretty sure, though, most of these tunnels and caves were old lava tubes. It was also obvious that the lava, in many places, had flowed over things: roads, houses⁠—a little piece of someone’s civilization. But, if she had ever been taught the skills to figure out the age of the lava flows, she hadn’t paid attention that day.

The Remains was the area of least destruction. It was once some sort of building, and many of the rooms still had books and furniture and office machines. Anything not made of rock showed nibble damage from the lengs. The little raptors were everywhere in the Remains, gnawing holes in walls, unafraid of the light, and their squeaks and noisy bustle made quietly sneaking around easy.

She found the clothed ape, in a large room apparently undamaged by lava, lit by makeshift lanterns. It was swiping at lengs with a broom, trying to keep them away from its food stores. She hid behind a large metal box by the door.

The room was filled with evidence of the ape’s battles with the lengs. Holes in walls were boarded up, and chewed open again, dishes were repaired with tape, furniture was riddled with nibbles. The clever ape had even killed a few⁠—one of the dead lengs was on the ground, near the door. She reached out, curled her claws around the limp body, popped it in her mouth and swallowed.

She didn’t know whether her newfound neighbor lived in the maze of caves by choice or, like her, wanted to escape. The Remains was clearly not its natural habitat, since there were no others of its kind to be seen. She could try communicating⁠—just the thought of a conversation was a thrill⁠—but she decided to retreat, and wait. Her first experience with the apes was fresh in mind.

Her tummy was satisfied by the dead leng; there was no need to hypnotize one for dinner.

She played her bagpipes anyway. The little lengies really seemed to enjoy it.

*

A few days passed with no clothed ape. She busied herself with her routine, evenings at the Mouth, days exploring the maze. But she steered clear of the Remains. The ape was a conundrum, a delicate puzzle that discouraged rash moves.

When it appeared again at the start of an afternoon concert, it held a box: black with metal highlights, about half a head in size. The now-fearless ape waded in among the lengs, and held the box in the air for several tunes before slinking away again. She tried to add this behavior to the ape-puzzle, but was unsure what the box was, how it fit.

She wasn’t concerned⁠—until the next day when she arrived at the concert junction and her bagpipes were gone from their hook.

Only one other creature in the tunnels could reach that high. Furious, and hungry, she tik tikked past the ape’s boulder and toward the Remains.

Then she stopped.

The sound of distant bagpipes droned through the halls. The tune was familiar⁠—”The Engineer’s Lament”, she had played it yesterday⁠—but it was hard to tell where it was coming from. All the lengs stopped to listen too. They cocked their heads, back and forth.

Slowly, a few of them started inching in one direction. The others cautiously followed⁠—then suddenly they were moving as one, fast, reaching full speed in seconds.

She joined the wave of lengs, at first trusting their instincts at every junction turn, then her own ears, as the music got louder. Her tik tik tik mixed with the lengs’ rainstorm of tiny claws.

They were headed for the Mouth.

Her legs were made for sprinting, and were beginning to tire when she turned the final corner and saw sky at the end of the tunnel. The lengs pulled ahead. The circle of sunlight grew, but she saw no one⁠—no ape, no piper. Only when she was closer did she notice the ape’s black box. It was hanging from a long stick, jutting out from the cliff like a fishing pole ready to drop its bait into the endless sea of clouds, far below. The bagpipe music was coming from the box.

Helplessly she roared a warning as the lengs streamed to the edge. They were too dumb to stop, too focused on the sound to notice the danger. The front line of lengs jumped, and the rest followed.

Then something unexpected happened.

The moment the lengs hit the air, their arms stretched out, spreading open little folds of skin. The tiny creatures almost seemed confused by their newfound skill: they couldn’t fly, but they could glide⁠—awkwardly, and with a rather rapid descent.

She collapsed and peered over the edge, watching them drift down to the clouds. They disappeared like dots of mist into fog.

The recorded sound of the pipes was head-splittingly loud.

And she was angry.

*

When she stomped into the Remains the ape was surprised⁠—it had no idea she knew where to find it. The bagpipes were on a table. There were no lengs to be seen. The ape was sweeping up and it dropped the broom and backed into a corner, speaking in a muddy language. She tik tikked into the room.

The ape glanced at the bagpipes⁠—no, the knife on the table next to them. With a swift swipe of her powerful leg she smashed the knife to the floor and the blade broke. She opened her massive jaw and roared at the cowering animal.

Killing the only other civilized creature hadn’t been the plan. She recognized its intelligence and respected it. But the ape, by callously destroying her source of food⁠—her audience, her little lengies⁠—didn’t reciprocate that respect. Death was a reasonable punishment.

Moaning its muddy words, the ape held up one hand and, with the other, pointed at the metal cabinet next to it. In a final show of respect before the kill, she hesitated.

Keeping its eyes on her, the ape opened the cabinet door and pointed to the two eggs inside. They were striped yellow and green, the same color as the lengs. The ape tapped its head, then waved towards the hallway.

It had found the leng hatchery.

This bid for survival impressed her. She had never found where the lengs nested, and she certainly wanted to.

She backed off and tilted her head, opening her jaw to reveal tongue and teeth⁠—a friendly sign of agreement that, for some reason, made the ape twitch.

*

The hatchery wasn’t far from the concert junction. She had tikked by it a dozen times and never noticed the small gap below the stone. The ape got down on all fours and squeezed in. Moving the stone took all her strength, but she followed.

The breach opened into to an enormous cavern, the largest she’d seen, and the ground was entirely covered with nests and eggs. The brightness surprised her; when her eyes adjusted, she looked up and saw a crack high above in the ceiling⁠—through it, she could see the sky.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs; plenty of food to last until she could find a way to reach the opening, and escape. Some eggs were recently hatched, and the quiet squeaks of newborns chasing bugs echoed off the walls.

*

She had a new routine now. It revolved around building the scaffold higher and higher, closer and closer to the sky, and playing her bagpipes for the leng chicks. The music was no longer necessary to catch them⁠—they were completely unafraid of her. They even followed her around as she scavenged building materials from the Remains. But she liked playing for the little lengies. They really seemed to enjoy it.

The ape⁠—that reckless, imprudent ape⁠—had held up its side of the bargain. She ate it anyway. It tasted like mammal.


© 2020 by Matthew Schickele

Matthew Schickele is a Queens-based writer of music and words: chamber music, songs, speculative fiction, opera, and electronic music.  @Squidocto www.MatthewSchickele.com


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