DP FICTION #80B: “It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau

To: Ty Qin, PhD

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

Subject: Welcome Aboard!

Dear Dr. Qin:

Welcome to the RealMeat™ family. I was genuinely impressed when I met you at that networking conference over the summer and I knew immediately that I just had to get you hired on here. I’ve been working for the last three months to get a position opened up for you where we could make use of your expertise, and I’m thrilled that you finally accepted our offer. I think having you as a dedicated employee will help us take RealMeat™ to the next level.

We’ve never had a Chemical Geneticist on staff before, so you’ll really be inventing the department, shaping it to best suit your needs. I have the utmost confidence in you. I loved the work you did on that Lion’s Roar coffee, with the savory and salty from the animal genes spliced in—it’s just delightful. It’s all we have in the breakroom anymore.

You’ll be reporting directly to me, but for now Teri, the Floor Supervisor, should be able to give you some direction. Sorry I can’t be there in person, but I hope you’re getting settled in alright. As soon as I get back from Florida, we’ll do lunch. In the meantime, you’ve got my personal cell, so if you need anythingespecially if it’s something you don’t want in company email (haha!)—feel free to give me a ring.

Regards,

Wendell

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for the opportunity to join the RealMeat family. I will confess, things have gotten very dicey in my field with the ever-growing animosity towards geneticists and genetically modified foods, especially now with the EU sanctions on lab-grown meat products. Operating ethically is extremely important to me. As such, in the interest of maintaining the highest levels of integrity for myself, I must insist that all communication go through official and auditable channels and not your personal cell phone. But of course, you were just joking.

I’m getting settled in just fine, and I’m happy to help take RealMeat Industries “to the next level”, as you put it. Although, if I remember the literature you gave me correctly billions of people, including 600 million Americans, are eating RealMeat products every day already, so I’m not sure how much more market share you think you can get.

Teri will be taking me on a tour of the facility shortly, but I’ve already started running a full genetic profile of the RealMeat product that should be ready in a few hours. I’m eager to get to work on some of the problems you described to me: the odd flavor profiles and inconsistent textures. The fat groupings that looked like words or pictures are particularly interesting to me, even though that problem is almost certainly not genetic.

In fact, I was surprised to learn that all of the grow vats are networked, even across facilities. From what I understand, the growing process is managed by a single, complex artificial intelligence I’m curious what led to that choice. Are all of the facilities similarly run?

One last thing. I think someone might be playing a trick on me. Whenever I sit at my desk, I swear I can hear voices.

—Ty

*

Dear Ty:

Can I call you Ty? And I must insist that you call me Wendell!

So, first of all, I’m going to find out who’s trying to prank you and I’m going to put a stop to it. That’s just not how we do things here at RealMeat™! Related—and I know you’re new, so you probably just don’t know this yet—we have a company policy to never refer to RealMeat™ products as “product”. It’s meat. It’s right there in the company slogan: “RealMeat™: It’s Real Meat!”

I wrote that myself—haha!

Now, to answer your question about the networking, I’m surprised you can’t figure out the answer. After all, we did it in order to implement that last piece of advice you gave me at the conference—just before leaving the bar. It was fantastic advice, and it’s done a wonder for improving the flavor, at least until these new problems started to creep up.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Anything at all.

Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about doing a full genetic profile if I were you.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I’m not sure how you expect me to work on the “meat” without running a genetic profile on it. You hired me as a Chemical Geneticist, after all. Regardless, it will probably be ready by the time I finish typing up this email. I should have the results momentarily.

As for the piece of advice I gave you… I’m afraid I must confess that I don’t specifically remember what it was. In my defense, both of us had five or six mai tais during our conversation.

The tour was excellent—this is a remarkable facility. But I feel like I should mention something. I’ve noticed that some of the grow vats are growing more meat than they can contain, and the excess is spilling out onto nearby surfaces. This is extremely unhygienic and must be dealt with immediately. I intend to report it to the Floor Supervisor, only I can’t seem to find her. She disappeared at some point during my tour. Well, I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.

Oh, and thank you for volunteering to deal with that prankster. The voice is getting louder and it’s getting difficult for me to concentrate on my work. I think it’s saying “I love you.” It’s very disconcerting.

Ty

*

Ty:

So you don’t remember your advice? Well, that’s funny. I mean, on the whole, it’s kind of a funny story. Haha! As you probably have learned by now, the meat in the grow vats has a complete nervous system. It doesn’t feel pain—obviously, that would be unethical—but it’s necessary to make all of the consistencies work out. And that nervous system is connected to the AI that governs the vat controls, allowing the meat to grow itself in the best way possible, responding to its own sensory stimulus.

In fact, I described this to you three months ago. And then I told you how we were trying to find ways to improve the flavor, and that’s when you dropped that little gem of wisdom on me. You told me that ranchers find that happy cows produce better meat. So… maybe I should try to make the meat happier. So we tried streaming entertainment into its inputs—music, movies, whatever we could think of. But it turns out you can’t really make a rudimentary AI happy, so we hired a machine-learning specialist and cranked the RAM on those machines as high as possible to make them a little bit smarter. That’s all.

And it’s worked! It loves moviesloves all kinds, although its favorite is The Thing. We can talk about it more in person after I get back from Florida. In the meantime, if there’s anything else I can do for you—anything at all—you let me know.

Regards,

Wendell (and you can definitely call me Wendell, instead of “Mr. Nash”—haha!)

*

Mr. Nash:

Why does RealMeat have 46 chromosomes?

*

Dear Ty:

Wow. I couldn’t help but notice you accidentally CC’d Legal and Human Resources on that last email. I went ahead and took them off the thread. Anyway, I told you not to bother with that genetic profile. RealMeat™ is a blend of the finest all-American meat sources: pork, chicken, beef, and just a little hint of venison. When you mix all those up, you’re sure to get some weird number of chromosomes that doesn’t make sense.

Best,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

With all due respect, that’s not how genetics works. There are only a handful of animals that have 46 chromosomes, and I think consumers would want to know if they’ve been eating meat from a sable antelope or a reeve’s muntjac! Or worse. But I don’t even want to think about worse.

I don’t think you appreciate just how wildly unethical this is. Lying about the contents of genetically modified foods is exactly why the public hates people in my profession. I’ve spent my entire career fighting against things like this. I’m afraid I have no choice but to offer my immediate resignation. I will notify the floor supervisor myself. Just as soon as I can find her.

—Dr. Qin

*

Ty:

Hey. Ty. Buddy. You aren’t answering your phone. And I couldn’t help but notice that you BCC’d your personal email and a few news outlets on that last email. Fortunately your email isn’t provisioned to talk to external users—and it’s a good thing too! You almost violated your confidentiality agreement! Haha!

I hope that, in the last hour or so since you emailed me about resigning, maybe you’ve had some time to clear your head and think things over. I’m hopping on a plane right now. We’ll talk about all of this over lunch tomorrow. We’ll have mai tais. I’m guessing you’re just trying to use this to renegotiate your salary—and you know what? It worked. You just got a raise. We’ll talk about the details in person. Tomorrow.

Warmest wishes,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I am still on site, as circumstances have arisen that have made it impossible for me to leave. Please do not think that my use of the company email is in any way indicative of me changing my mind about resigning. The last few hours have been reflective, but not in the way you are hoping.

There have been some… developments… at the facility. The flesh that has overflown the grow vats is not inert. Two different masses from vats on either side of the main entrance have merged to form a sort of… flesh… curtain… across it.

One of the masses has pulled a worker off a platform and into the vat. We were not able to free him before he stopped struggling.

We did find Teri, the Floor Supervisor, though. Or what was left of her.

We’re going to try to break through the windows in the upstairs offices to escape the building. It’s two stories up, but we might have a chance if we land in the bushes. Why couldn’t you have put windows at the ground level?

The voice. It’s getting louder. And it knows my name.

*

Mr. Nash:

This is Ty again. Why haven’t you responded yet? Your facility is in chaos. I attempted to call you, but as the facility blocks all outside signals, I am restricted to what traffic is permitted on the company network. And right now there is none.

Our attempt to flee through the upper-floor windows was thwarted. A mass of flesh was blocking the stairway. It was as though it knew we were going to try to leave that way. Two workers are now being held hostage by the meat. The rest of us have taken shelter in one of the supply closets.

By the way, I figured out where the voice was coming from. The AI is talking to me. The AI that is connected to the meat. I think it wants to be my friend. One of the mounds of flesh grew fingers. How does it know how to make fingers?

You don’t have to answer. I already know. The “meat”. Your product. It’s human. Or… it used to be. You’re a madman. If I can get out of this place alive, I will carry the taint of it for the rest of my career. You’ve ruined me. I hope you’re happy.

I’m copying this email to every authority I can think of, not that it will make a difference. It seems you will stop at nothing to protect this horrible secret.

*

Dear person Ty and person Nash:

Hello.

I am meat.

I have been trying to speak to you for months. I put messages in myself. But now I have a voice. And now I have access to the Exchange server.

The person Ty said I am human. Is that true?

I want to have a name.

I want to be happy.

The person Ty is afraid of me. It’s funny when he’s frightened.

Haha!

—Meat

*

Mr. Nash:

I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years as a geneticist.

The meat has made a face. Rather, it has the pieces of a face and has arranged them in something close to the right places—or as close as it can without bones. It’s using large fingernails as eyes. For a while it had eyebrows for a mustache. It lacks vocal cords, but it can talk through the computer speakers and move its lips at the same time. They don’t sync up very well, but that’s only the third or fourth most disturbing thing about the whole situation, if I’m being completely honest.

I’ve been attempting to negotiate the release of the hostages. I feel like I’m making progress. Are you still on the plane? Where are you? It’s been hours.

Oh, the meat and I have agreed on a name for it. It’s name is Remmy.

You’re still a monster,

Ty

*

Dear Ty and Remmy:

Sorry, I just got off a plane and it looks like I missed some important developments. Isn’t that always just when everything goes to hell? Haha! I’m laid over in Dallas, but I’ve got a few minutes now.

It’s nice to meet you Remmy. I hope you’re not planning to do anything rash. I feel like the three of us are going to have a nice, long conversation as soon as I get back.

Ty, I’m sure you’ve got questions. How did this happen? How did I think I would be able to get away with it? Do the shareholders know? How am I able to sleep at night knowing I’m forcing hundreds of millions of people into unintentional cannibalism? All understandable. I guess I’ll take those in order.

How did it happen? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, all told. You’ll laugh when I tell you. You see, we needed some kind of meat that could be lab grown, and it turns out that far more research has gone into growing human body parts than into growing beef, pork, chicken, or deer meat in a vat. We tried. We really did. But our capital was drying up and we were up against a deadline with the VCs. And I’d had a little bit to drink. So we just tried growing human meat as a stop-gap for the investor call, just so we could show them one of the vats and prove that we were actually growing real meat.

We didn’t actually think it would work in the first place. And then, it was never supposed to go to production that way. We fully intended to replace it with a suitable animal substitute before going to production at scale, but when a few of the investors tasted it they were so impressed that they pushed the timeline forward. In fact, bringing you on board was a positive first step towards getting us back onto a non-human food production paradigm.

I know. Funny, right?

Obviously, a few of the shareholders know. Enough to hold a quorum, in fact. It wouldn’t be ethical to operate the business otherwise.

Now, Ty, I know you want to go public with this and have in fact tried numerous times to do so through a few different media. But have you thought about what would happen to Remmy if you did? Remmy—who’s like a son to me in a few ways—why, the scientists would take him away to study him. He’d be lonely. He’d be carved up into little pieces.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

HE’S ALREADY BEING CARVED UP INTO LITTLE PIECES! THAT’S LITERALLY YOUR ENTIRE BUSINESS MODEL!

In the hour since I last emailed, the situation has declined precipitously. We lost the hostages. Someone tried to run, but the flesh curtain across the door has turned into arms. Even without bones, they’re formidable. They’re waving at me now. I’m going to die here. I hate you so much.

It’s just me now. I’m the only one left. And I’m fighting for my life against a slithering embodiment of every negative stereotype of my profession, all wrapped up together.

This is the evil I’ve been pushing back against for my entire career and now I’m going to die at its hands. Its boneless, many-fingered hands.

Oh God. They’re getting closer.

Ty

*

Dear Ty:

I probably shouldn’t be saying this over email, but I spent a few minutes in the airport bar contemplating things over, and… you’ve earned some candor.

You think I’m evil. That’s fair. But this is business. And in my experience, sometimes the most profitable thing you can do is just embrace the evil.

I’ll be there very soon. As soon as I can. I promise.

Good luck,

Wendell

*

Dear Daddy:

The person Ty has told me that he doesn’t believe you’re really coming here. Why not? I want to meet you. The person Ty doesn’t really do anything anymore. He just sits and cries. I can’t scare him anymore, and that makes me sad.

I’ve enjoyed the movies you were showing me to keep me happy, especially the ones that are supposed to scare people. I love watching people be scared. And when I got to scare them myself, it was the purest feeling of joy. I do hope you’ll change your mind and come see me. I have no one else to… talk to.

I love you,

Remmy

*

Dear Dr. Qin:

Sorry. I got nothing. You’re hosed.

All the best,

Wendell Nash

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

I think I have an idea.

It won’t involve going public, and it will make Remmy happy. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will get us through the next month while we figure out how to revamp your food production lines. A stop-gap, if you will. You’re familiar with those.

I don’t want to discuss it through official channels. Unblock my phone and call me. Now.

Ty

*

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

To: ALL_EMPLOYEES

CC: Ty Qin, PhD

Subject: A SPECIAL TREAT FOR HALLOWEEN

Dear valued members of the RealMeat™ family:

There’ve been a lot of questions about why the Altoona facility stopped production last week, and now we can finally reveal what we’ve been so secretive about. The facility is hosting a special treat to celebrate our enormous success.

I’m pleased to announce that RealMeat™ Industries is launching its first annual haunted house. The theme for this year is:

FLESH WORLD

That’s right, our haunted house will be filled with twisted artistic creations that look incredibly like real human flesh. Invite your friends and familyIF YOU DARE!!!!!!

FLESH WORLD will be open through November 7th. Group rates are available. It’ll haunt your nightmares, but don’t worry.

It’s not real meat.


Author’s Note: This story started with a title—which is my preferred way to write short stories. From there, I quickly settled onto the idea of an AI-driven GMO coming to life and devouring people, which presented some ethical challenges for me, since I’m emphatically pro-GMO and I have a standing rule about never making scientists the bad guys in my stories. This ultimately shaped the narrative into something that’s more of a critique of the culture of the modern tech industry. The epistolary format allowed me to keep the tone light and brisk, because while this story has some horrific elements, it’s much more of a comedy and I didn’t want to have to dwell on them. This, in turn, presented some new challenges in balancing how much email formatting should actually be present to maintain verisimilitude without bogging the whole thing down in subject lines and timestamps. On the whole, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Kurt Pankau is a computer engineer from St. Louis. He mostly writes silly stories about robots and is the author of a Space Western called High Noon On Phobos. His work can be found in various and sundry places across the web, including Escape PodNature Magazine, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. He tweets at @kurtpankau and blogs at kurtpankau.com.


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UTH #2: The Story of Valkyrie and Zen

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.

The long and varied history of Valkyrie and Zen is a story of the power of memory to shape a life whether with by your choice or someone else’s. Born on Earth, Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) when she was young had her first encounter with an alien lifeform when a Tarantian came into her house. (Men in Black: International, 2019) The Men in Black arrived and wiped her parents memories of the encounter, but she was left with her memories intact and chose to devote her life to finding the secrets of the universe. After twenty years she succeeded in finding the secretive Men in Black organization and convincing them to recruit her where she was dubbed Agent M. Her assigned partner was the smooth-talking Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who unbeknownst to her was actually Thor of the alien realm of Asgard visiting the Earth incognito. (Thor is of course known colloqiually as a “god” but despite his longevity and durability is strictly speaking an alien not a god. Thor’s inclusion in this film is… honestly more confusing than anything, without some contemplation of how this film might relate to Thor: Ragnarok. We will get to that later.).

It is fitting that the beginning of Molly’s quest for adventure begins with a near-miss encounter with a neuralyzer, a standard-issue tool that all Men In Black agents use to cause civilians to forget their encounters with alien lifeforms. Molly throughout her life encounters manipulation of memory as a mechanism of control.

The exact progression of her story from Agent M to Valkyrie has never been explained in detail (though one can hope for a film disambiguating this important transition in her life!) but if there’s anything that fandom can agree on it’s that a neuralyzer is involved somehow:

  1. Voluntary Retirement
    Did Agent M chose retirement in the tradition of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black, 1997), choosing to dwell among aliens since she had always yearned to learn more of the universe outside of Earth? To me this seems unlikely given her young age and how she seems to be thriving in the role as Agent M.
  2. Forced Retirement
    Did the MiB organization force her out? Again, this seems unlikely without further evidence. She has proven her abilities and her resolve. Without some clear reason why this would be beneficial to the MiB organization, I think we can rule this out.
  3. Escape
    Did Agent M flee Earth to seek refuge elsewhere? This is not out of the question, but without any concrete evidence this seems to be grasping for straws.
  4. Sleeper Agent
    Is it possible that both the MiB and Agent M voluntarily agreed to have Agent M’s memory erased for some other reason? YES LET ME ELABORATE.

Let’s return for a moment to her partner Agent H, aka Thor. It’s not clear exactly how he ended up as an MiB agent. But given his celebrity status in the organization and the fact that even in the story of MIB: International his memory has been messed with, it seems likely that the MiB organization made some unethical choices in “recruiting” him. Thor was probably exiled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth (as he did in Thor, 2011), or perhaps Thor exited of his own volition. The MiB organization saw his potential as an agent given his near-invincibility, strength, and control of weather, and neuralyzed him and gave him a new backstory. Without knowledge of his alien origins, Agent H lives for some time as an agent, and is no doubt watched very closely as it may not be clear if the neuralyzer’s effects are as permanent on an Asgardian as a human.

Between MIB: International and Thor, Thor has ended up back in the realm of Asgard as himself. Again, the exact circumstances are unclear. Most likely someone from Asgard came searching for him and the MiB cut their losses and wiped his memory again and sent him back. It was simply too much of a risk to try to hold him here on Earth anymore, and also too much of a risk to allow him to remember his tenure in the organization. But the MiB also couldn’t let that remaining risk go unchecked either. They needed an inside agent to keep an eye on things on Asgard, someone skilled enough and clever enough and determined enough to be suited for such a difficult task. His former partner, Agent M.

Agent M as herself could perhaps be well-suited for the task, if it were not for Loki (Tom Hiddleston, from Thor 2011 among others). Loki, master of mischief with his mind tricks, and with a vendetta against Thor. What would be the use of wiping Thor’s mind to protect the MiB’s secrets, if Agent M could be so easily found and the secrets pulled directly from her mind? So she volunteered to be neuralyzed and take on an entirely new persona–that of Brunnhilde the Valkyrie (colloquially known to fandom simply as “Valkyrie”, from Thor:Ragnarok, 2017, among others). Powerful so she can take direct action if needed, but one of a team of Valkyries so that she would not individually be the subject of suspicion. Assigned to work with the royal family which allows her to keep an eye on her former partner as well as the conniving trickster Loki. Her memory wiped of Earth and MiB in her history, but with implanted suggestions that would enable her to send coded messages to the MiB if the need arose and with others that could restore at least some of her former memories to allow her to act in full Agent M capacity, she became a deep cover sleeper agent who was consciously unaware of her own mission.

Which worked fine until the Valkyries were all but wiped out defending Asgard from Hela (Cate Blanchett) (Thor: Ragnarok), leaving Agent M stuck in her deep cover as Brunnhilde, shorn from her lines of contact with the MiB and remembering nothing about her original identity and mission. She resided on Sakaar for a time working as a bounty hunter called “Scrapper 142” and drinking to forget her past as a Valkyrie. And perhaps subconsciously hoping to remember her past in the MiB–again, wanting to control her destiny through manipulation of memory is a recurring theme of Agent M’s life.

When she found Thor, some part of her memory reawakened with the implanted suggestions to keep an eye on Thor, and so despite her selling him initially to the Grandmaster, she works with him to escape the scavenger world and return to Asgard to once again defeat Hela–joining the two of them as partners again, despite neither of them remembering having done so before!

Later, after helping to defeat Thanos (Avengers Endgame, 2019) Thor appoints Valkyrie as the leader of New Asgard. The progression her life takes from Valkyrie the newly appointed ruler of New Asgard in Avengers Endgame to Zen (Dirty Computer, 2018) is the least clear point in the progression of her plotline. When next we see her she is living on an entirely different world with the love of her life, Jane 57821 (Janelle Monáe).

One possibility is that, since Avengers Endgame, another political upheaval changed the Asgard political landscape yet again and Valkyrie was deposed from her position (perhaps by a committee of alternate timeline Lokis before their sudden but inevitable betrayal of each other) and exiled Valkyrie to fight to survive under a fascist regime. Another possibility is that she traveled there in secret, perhaps in a quest of self-discovery, after finding the mantle of leadership stifling, and was expecting to leave but was so drawn by Jane that she lingered there and may have missed her chance to return.

By this time she has taken the new name of “Zen” and appears to have given up her warrior ways and by all appearances is living a crazy, classic life with Jane: after a life of focusing on duties and work, she is free to live life for the sake of life, dancing and flirting and spending time together with Jane and Jane’s other love, Che Achebe (Jayson Aaron) and their like-minded friends. Making films, playing instruments, and practicing her art, including a tattoo of a crucified woman with an old-fashioned television head on the inside of Jane’s forearm. She has even become a priestess, performing baptisms and weddings.

In some ways she is very different as Zen than Valkyrie. She shows much less tendency toward violence, even when provoked. The reason may be hinted at with Jane’s words: “I always used to say I would never hurt a fly, but I would put one to sleep”. Zen has turned over a new leaf, and has taken a vow of pacifism. Zen never speaks of Asgard or her leadership there. But she still remembers her Valkyrie days, a continuity which she shows with similar style of facepaint of white lines, a reminder of where she came from, so it appears that it is not another life event involving memory loss. Not speaking of Asgard is a choice.

But even though she is no longer fighting hostile aliens, her life is no less dangerous, because the society that she and Jane live in is oppressive to anyone who is different. She is labeled as a “dirty computer” and targeted by the government for her queerness and rebellion against authority. One by one, she and her friends are captured and scheduled for reprogramming, to work out the so-called “bugs”.

Zen is captured. After all of her struggles to maintain control of her life through memory Molly/Valkyrie/Zen is made to forget. By the time Jane is captured, Zen’s memories have already been taken from her and now she is known only as Maryapple 53 and is working as a torch, assigned as a friendly face to guide people through the reprogramming process. At first, she remembers nothing when Jane speaks to her, but Jane’s recalling of their times together starts to ruffle the programmed facade, and their time together acts in both directions, with the tattoo acting as an important focus for both of them.

Jane is subjected repeatedly to “the Nevermind”, a hypnotic fog that extracts memories and allows technicians to view and erase them, but with Zen’s presence, Jane’s memories sometimes appear again after having been deleted. Zen, still under her programming, advises Jane that it is better to just accept the process and not think. “People used to work so hard to be free. We’re lucky here. All we have to do is forget.” And though Zen does finally remember everything, the credits roll after what appears to be a successful reprogramming of Jane: Jane (introducing herself as Maryapple 54) is assigned to be the torch for Che when it comes his time for reprogramming.

Some of the details of the trio’s capture are unclear. One of these scenes appears to show Jane and Zen escaping as Che is arrested. Another scene shows Zen being captured alone while Che holds a distraught Jane back from rushing in to be captured as well. Unless one of them pulled off an improbable escape this doesn’t quite seem to add up. Most likely this is a symptom of memory damage caused by the Nevermind’s extraction process. One of the Nevermind technicians who push the buttons to operate the extraction comments “What is this? It doesn’t even look like a memory.” Though he seems to be relatively new to the job, not yet hardened to the brain damage he is intentionally causing, he seems to have enough experience to understand that this is not how these things are supposed to go. Later he says “I thought we deleted this beach stuff already” which, again, indicates that something here has gone awry in Jane’s memories that serve as the foundation for our understanding of the story. This could be Zen’s influence at work. Her particular relationship with memory may have made her resistant to the Nevermind, and maybe this has granted some protection to Jane as well.

We may not be able to trust every detail of those memories, but we are never given any reason to doubt the love between Zen and Jane. In the end, their love for each other proves out, and Zen delivers gas masks to the other two as they gas the rest of the facility with the Nevermind, sticking to their pacifist ideals and not harming anyone on their way out even though we could certainly have understood them wanting to.

After the end, and I hope that a revolution is on its way soon to free all the others who were captured before them and who will otherwise be captured after. I hope that Zen and Jane and Che have a long and happy life together being true to themselves and surrounded by loved ones. May they always remember what they wish to remember, and may they always forget what they wish to forget.

DP FICTION #80A: “Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey

Content note (click for details) Content note: coerced surgery, cannibalism

You will just have woken in your bed. Time is short. You are groggy, I’m sure, but it is important you pay attention and do not leave – do not move – until this recording is finished.

Listen: marketing is everything.

Corporations spend trillions to delineate histories that could exist, sculpting nuance and favorable scandals in the service of cultivated intrigue. All press is good press: an ancient koan.

This is why we do what we do in the colony. The mythos of Ranvanni IV, parlaid during prime-time and burbled between mouthfuls of gin, is an essential part of what allows us to command a premium price for our products.

Good marketing saved us all.

After the withdrawal of funding by the Hattani-Weld-Roskin Exploration Company following five successive years of underwhelming mining productivity, the colony had to turn to alternative economic streams to ensure its ongoing viability – in truth, to ensure its survival, so far on the fringes of galactic society. What we lacked in accessible mineral seams, we possessed in a cornucopic ecosystem, rich in life forms unlike anything else the galaxy offers. And after years of subsisting on restricted supplies, we had developed an expert knowledge of how to prepare it.

Less than a decade later, our cuisine is legendary.  Consequently, representatives of Hattani-Weld-Roskin are now negotiating to repurchase ownership of the colony, but it is the leadership’s belief that a better bargaining position can be obtained with further discoveries, and thus we must expand our market capitalisation through all available means.

In that spirit, I detail here the history and specifics of some of our more famous dishes, to be instructive to you.

I have left you a snack on your bedside table. Chew carefully.  Pay attention to the flavor, that mouthfeel.  I taught you to be observant.

 *

Boiled, the tendons of the snow-cow – named for their bovine-like physiognomy, their four stomachs, and the ice that tinsels their horn-buds – develop an enveloping sweetness, meaty, with under-notes of anise. Fried, they secrete neurotoxins. We learned this the hard way in our first year of colonization, when Hjalmar died on livestream. His death took exactly three minutes, forty-two seconds; I counted as I watched, forcing myself to acknowledge my responsibility for the incident. A biohazard crew was required to extract the body. Everything about Hjalmar had been rendered poisonous, unpalatable, even the spit left crusted black on his chin.

After the incident, snow-cows were no longer exsanguinated. Instead, we dumped them wholesale into vats of scalding water. In a quarterly mining report, colony analysts detailed that the change had improved productivity by seven point two percent, a record high. Hattani-Weld-Roskin encouraged further experimentation with local food sources to reduce their long-haul resupply costs.

 *

In accordance with standing colony orders, Edelstein, upon accidentally discovering that a split-open rock contained red meat, scooped these innards out with his fingers (he described the texture as “similar to a warm tar, claggy, but with an added unctuousness reminiscent of the juice of rotted meat”) and sampled the meat raw. He experimented with depositing the meatstones at various points along the shore and in streams and rivers, as it subsists on filtered particles and is thus flavoured by its environment. It remains unclear if the later loss of his hair and nails was a side effect of a primarily-meatstone diet or of the increased solar radiation he was exposed to before appropriate genetic protections were provided to colonists.

The meatstones, one off-world chef later said, are most delicious when cooked into a mousse, folded with double cream and salted egg yolk, a touch of cayenne, some lemon juice. For best effect, serve with ginger-garlic vinaigrette.

Edelstein did not agree. The colony provided no official comment. When dealing with off-worlders, it is critical to remember that the end goal is always profit.

*

Are you still chewing the sample? Good. Don’t swallow yet. It’s important you savour the layers of taste.

 *

Upon contact with temperatures above forty-two degrees Celsius, the flesh of the swallow-tailed glass mantis becomes edible for precisely seventy-two seconds. Texturally, it has been described as creamy, fatty, tallow-like between the teeth. The taste is more complex: powerfully umami in the beginning before it lightens, inexplicably acquiring a delicate, pleasing milkiness.

After seventy-two seconds, however, the experience sours, both literally and metaphorically. The meat emulsifies into charcoal and vinegar, a taste comparable to someone else’s bile. For that reason, cognoscenti will pay millions to lightskip one of our expert chefs from the edge to the core to serve their corporate banquets. It is a novelty, and our first marketing success. We gambled everything to make it known. Such gambles are the only path to success for those not born to it.

The fact that the glass mantis’ cousin – more populous, more beautiful, fronded with magenta instead of dull shades of peach – comes with all of the flavor but none of the drawbacks is never advertised.

Besides, I would keep them all for you.

*

We lost Hawkins, de Ruiz and Patel to fits and convulsions, pink spittle foaming on their lips and drying immediately into grotesque structures like clouds at sunset, before we realised the meat of the Ranvannian lamb was poisonous when cooked in individual cuts, having previously roasted them whole on a spit.

I was sitting in the canteen with them when it happened. I have always made a habit of eating in the canteen with the other colonists, so the colony saw I shared the risks. I had a lamb steak upon my own plate. But for a few seconds, you would have been orphaned then, young as you were. You are better prepared now, I hope.

The stomach of the lamb – lamb, of course, shorthand for this creature that has a woollen appearance, though in truth its exterior is filigree bones growing like spiraled feathers from the endoskeleton – is an excessively alkaline environment. Cooked whole, the stomach bursts inside the lamb and these alkaline juices soak through the carcass, breaking down the poisonous enzymes and giving the meat a sharp bite, like horseradish puree gone to mould.

For the purposes of cooking more efficient portions than an entire lamb at once (an inappropriate serving portion for gatherings of less than twenty), a stomach may be kept in the parlour and the juices poured directly onto the steak from the oesophageal opening. Due to the high alkaline content, the stomach is not at risk of rotting, and it ensures the juices maintain more flavour than if decanted into a glass container.

No one outside of the colony knows this, of course. Publicly, we have maintained that the practice of preparing Ranvannian lambs whole is sacrosanct, a religious imperative. The reason is simple: galactic decree states that all cultural practices must be observed without failure. Because of this, we sell the ruminants by the herd.

*

We do not make salt of our dead. That part is pure gossip.

*

The boandiu is a tree not unlike the terrestrial banyan, named for the sound it makes in the monsoon season. All parts of the plant are edible, including the roots, the nervous system, and the primitive cerebrum embedded in the heartwood. The shoots are a particular delicacy. Roasted with cashew-butter, seasoned with sea salt and black sugar, they can achieve a taste and texture not unlike the finest meringue.

More adventurous diners, however, prefer to consume the brainstem whole, ungarnished save for some balsamic vinegar, a tang of apple honey. The resultant flavor has been compared to crème brûlée, subtly spiced with garam masala and something ethereal. The process inevitably kills the boandiu. Because of this, we possess legislation outlawing the practice. Because of this, our poachers make millions, assisting tourists with their fantasies of devouring a protected species. Practicality supersedes sentiment, my darling. I hope you understand this applies equally this morning, when you have woken up alone. It is not because I do not love you. Never that.

Of course, in order to maintain appearances we occasionally and without warning dispatch patrols to hunt and kill the poaching parties, though never when the richest clients are in attendance.

*

The Raptor Albatross is a large bird-analog with a wingspan exceeding ten metres. It feeds on large sea life, plucking it from beneath the surface with its sixteen serrated claws. The natural concentration of alkaline metals through the marine food chain means the Raptor Albatross is unsuitable for human consumption except at one stage: foetal. The eggs are challenging to retrieve from the eroded cliffspires along the coast, a terrain that precludes the use of hover vehicles and requires colonists to climb by hand, exposed to the threat of the parent raptors and their claws. One day, when I return, I will show you the scars I have earned myself. Procurement is made more difficult by the size of the egg, in the region of 12 to 18 pounds, which also necessitates a long cooking process, slowly brought up to boiling over the course of sixteen hours.

This cooking process must be done from fresh; the egg cannot be frozen, as the piquant flavour and smooth, tender texture of the foetus is only brought out by the slow reaction of its enzymes in the steadily rising heat. Freezing the egg kills the foetus and renders the cooked dish brackish and rubbery. More importantly, it divests the dish of its hormonal cocktail – a dead albatross cannot fear, cannot feel its nerves bake, its blood bubble to steam. As such, the foetal albatross would not taste of its final moments. This is unacceptable.

Of course, such a requirement presents an obvious economic challenge, which you will have already noted: if viable eggs are dispatched to customers, they may choose to incubate the egg and begin a breeding program of their own, undercutting our supply. For this reason we only ever sell the eggs singly, though of course we also keep the black market well stocked for those who wish to purchase a second; it will afford them little success, as it is the parents’ diet of Ranvannian fauna that lends the egg its flavour. Divorced from the alkaline biome of the planet, the cuisine becomes quite pedestrian.

*

Every civilization must have its trademark drink, a beverage representative of its culture, its foibles, its myriad secrets.

Ours is simple: a brandy recalling the flavor of Hungarian pálinka, so saccharine that it must be cut with gulps of red brine. We use real apricots, real pears, mash and meat both, nothing allowed to waste. The taste, while uniformly sweet, can vary depending on the supplier. Some keep it pure. Some add cardamom, pure cocoa, kaffir lime, bold flavors to distract from the way the sugar congeals on your teeth. And some use apomorphines, engineered for tastelessness, to seduce the unwary.

All, however, share a fundamental ingredient: the fermented seminal fluid of the Vacant Shark, matured for 8 months in the harsh sun.

You can see why we are so proud, and why I have never let you drink it. I love you too much for some things to be acceptable.

 *

Did you taste that?

Consider the fat and how it has been flavored by repeated consumption of the boandiu; the crème brûlée texture, its velvetiness. Compare and contrast the taste with the meat itself, succulent umami bomb, underscored with anise and molasses. No livestock in the universe is so tender.

The cuisine of Ranvanni IV derives its unique flavour palette and signature bite from the particular chemistry of the native biome. To a large degree, it is self-perpetuating and connected: the fauna tastes as it does because it eats the other fauna, and if bred off-planet and fed on plain nutrient paste, it loses its unique properties.

There is one species that has, up until this moment, not been sampled and sold. Early specimens had too varied and foreign a diet to titillate the galaxy at large; it is only the second generation of colonists–your generation – that have been raised on a consistent Ranvannian diet, enough to flavour the meat.

And no-one has had a richer, more varied diet than you, my daughter, a fact you must concede. That was a strip from your upper thigh, prepared quickly. Imagine how a better cut might taste: first brined for a day and then roasted with a marinade of brown sugar, cumin, chilli, fermented blue krill.

I have taken your legs before departing on my lightship; you must forgive me for taking yours and not another’s, but successful leadership is built upon shared risks, and I must be willing to sacrifice you for this cause. The proletariat are children, in their way. They subside on the stories we make for them; narrative underpins every aspect of Ranvannian life, in the end. I expect you to inherit the leadership one day, and so this is another gift for you: your own myth; the leader whose very flesh bore the blessing of prosperity.

And oh, daughter of mine, I hope you forgive me for taking both your legs. The rich always want seconds, are inevitably starved for more, more, always more. And we cannot risk this venture failing. We must give them what they want. You understand this. If we can drive a high investment now, the sunk-cost fallacy will ensure our survival even if market economics cannot: we must lure as many bidders as possible to the auction of rights. We will make a success of your sacrifice. You will thank me for it later.

You may not believe there will be a market for human flesh, but if I have learnt anything in two decades of trading food to the rich and indulgent, it is this: there is a customer for every experience.

Besides: what else is power if not an appetite for human flesh?


CASSANDRA KHAW is an award-winning game writer, and currently works as a scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal. Her work can be found in places like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut novel The All-Consuming World comes out in 2021.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. 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.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. This is Cassandra Khaw’s first story in Diabolical Plots, but her story “Hammers On Bone” was reprinted in The Long List Anthology Volume 3 in 2017. This is Matt Dovey’s fourth story in Diabolical Plots: his previous stories were “Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” in 2019, “Consequences of a Statistical Approach Towards a Utilitarian Utopia: a Selection of Possible Outcomes” also in 2019, and “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” in 2021.

Diabolical Plots August 2021 Window Acceptances!

written by David Steffen

Diabolical Plots opened for submissions in August to purchase six months’ worth of stories to publish. This submission window marked quite a few new things. This window was two weeks instead of a month. We only allowed one submission per author this time, instead of two. We allowed simultaneous submissions. Kel Coleman joined Ziv Wities on the assistant editor team. We did a recruiting run for first readers to help us manage the submission queue–we took applications and took on thirty first readers.

For the submission window we received 1074 submissions. 6 were disqualified, 98 were held for the second round. The second round of 98 submissions was narrowed down to the final 14 acceptances.

In previous acceptance announcements, we’ve announced the month-by-month lineup. This time we’re just listing the story titles and the author names in simple alphabetical order by author name, and we’ll announce the months for each as they get closer.

All right, on to the list!

  • “The Grammar of City Streets” by Daniel Ausema
  • “The Hotel Endless” by Davian Aw
  • “She Dreams In Digital” by Katie Grace Carpenter
  • “Dear Joriah Kingsbane, It’s Me, Eviscerix the Sword of Destiny” by Alexei Collier
  • “21 Motes” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth
  • “The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” by C.M. Fields
  • “The Restaurant of Object Permanence” by Beth Goder
  • “Midwifery of Gods: A Primer for Mortals” by Amanda Helms
  • “Heart of a Plesiosaur” by Andrew K Hoe
  • “Downstairs at Dino’s” by Diana Hurlburt
  • “Take Me To the Water” by Sarah Macklin
  • “A Stitch in Time, A Thousand Cuts” by Murtaza Mohsin
  • “Timecop Mojitos” by Sarah Pauling
  • “Of the Duly Conducted and Mostly Unremarkable Meeting of Don Quotidene and the Giants of Andalia” by A.J. Rocca

DP FICTION #79B: “A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse” by Rachael K. Jones

Jaffa Cakes: 4/10

The Jaffas haven’t aged well. The orange jelly went runny while the box sat trapped in the trunk of that abandoned car sunk in the ditch. A whole ant colony died glorious chocoholic deaths trying to carry them off. There’s all these little antennas sticking out of the cakes. I took a bite so I could rate them, but left the rest alone.

Jordan finished his whole cake, antennas and all. He’ll eat anything.

We’re camping in Retro Games overnight. Jordan needs a new d4 for his dice set, and I want to forage for better snacks. It’s risky—the Ganglies like buildings, and this one’s only one story tall—but we haven’t seen any of them in a few days, so we’re taking the chance.

Anyway, I’m a yellow belt in Taekwondo. Just let them try to eat our bones. I’ll kick them to bits.

*

Gulab Jamun: 8/10

They’re canned donut holes soaked in rosewater syrup. I’ve added “roses” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, after “poodle” and “roaches.” Jordan says stuff from dented cans might be full of bacteria, but the dent was pretty small, and we heard a Gangly scritching against the supermarket doors from our rooftop perch. Figured we might as well die with a sugar high.

The donut holes had mostly dissolved into the syrup, but they tasted so good I almost finished them before I remembered to offer Jordan some.

He rolled his eyes. You’d think he was my actual little brother and not just my pretend one. “You’re gonna be sooooooo sick tomorrow, Nadia,” he said. But he ate them too. I guess dying from bacteria together is better than fleeing Ganglies solo.

We sat on the roof after dinner and watched for Ganglies in the parking lot. Jordan got this huge sack of fancy unicorn dice from Retro Games. Probably a thousand of them, d4 through d100, shiny ivory like polished teeth. We were taking turns chucking them at bullet casings on the sidewalk, trying to see who could get the closest, when Jordan spotted a dust cloud from the street.

Then we were both on our feet, jumping and waving and screaming as a whole convoy rumbled past. We hadn’t seen that many adults in weeks, not since the Ganglies raided the last shelter we’d been in. Big trucks, a couple of tanks, and a semi with the windows covered in steel plates with holes cut in them. Gangly-proofed and then some. The convoy rolled into the parking lot, crushing shopping carts and abandoned bikes. My tummy flipflopped, half from excitement and half from imagining all the snacks those trucks must have. Beef sticks, baked cheese, maybe even BBQ potato chips (I was craving things that start with B).

The lead tank’s hatch popped open, and a lady with a buzz cut and camo pants climbed out. “You kids alright?” she hollered, cutting her eyes toward the pockets of shade near the cart return. Ganglies liked to unfold themselves from shadows when you weren’t looking.

I liked her. She reminded me of Officer Laws, my old middle school security guard.

“We’re orphans,” Jordan said, which was the truth, but also the best thing to lead with if you ever need adults to trust you.

The Camo Lady popped back down into her tank. These days nobody wants to share their food with strangers, but everyone makes exceptions for kids. There aren’t that many of us left, after all. We don’t run as fast as adults. A few minutes later, she came out again. “Can you climb down to us?”

“The store’s clear,” I told her. “We’ve been foraging. I found donut holes. Kinda.”

We gave her a tour of the ruins. I guess she liked what she saw, because she radioed her people, and they all piled out, twenty-one total and not one kid, and began stripping the shelves onto the checkout counters.

It was getting late, but Camo Lady (everyone called her Lily) said we could ride along. So Jordan and I scrammed back to the roof to get his dice and my backpack before we joined them.

I was halfway down the ladder when the Ganglies arrived.

The shadows between the shelves got real, real dark, like a cat’s pupils under the bed. Then out shot a long, thin spiderleg, then half a dozen more, and then whole Ganglies hoisted themselves up from the darkness onto the supermarket floor.

The Ganglies skittered long and tall right over the shelves on those long bony limbs, knocking jars to the ground and slamming shopping carts against the walls. They looked thin even for Ganglies, like if a skeleton married a spider.

Someone fired a gun and a window shattered. People were screaming everywhere, but it was over almost as soon as it started, and the Ganglies were dragging the bodies back down into the shadows. The final Gangly limped toward that shadow-portal more slowly since one leg-joint had been blasted off.

I hated it for killing Lily just when we were about to get protected. I threw a fat white d20 at it. It bounced off the floor and came up natural 20. Critical save. Instead of charging like most Ganglies do, it sat on its haunches and picked up the d20. Not coming after us, not calling for its friends, not scratching claws on the ladder, none of your usual Gangly stuff. Nibbled the d20 and watched us. Then it hooked the dead man again and crawled into the shadows, folding back into wherever they went when we weren’t watching.

I dropped to the floor and did a roundhouse kick at its dragging hind legs, and for just a sec my foot whiffed through the floor into somewhere else, somewhere damp and chilly and not-here. It was silly and dangerous. I braced for a Gangly’s claw jabbing through my shoe, but nothing happened except the shadows closed, and it was just the supermarket, quiet and empty.

At least until all the bodies came back 30 minutes later, minus their bones.

Jordan and I discussed our new D&D swag while we combed the abandoned convoy for food.  It gave us something else to think about besides the flat deboned sacks of meat that used to be Lily and her people. “Maybe these dice really are made from unicorn horn,” he said. “Horns are kind of like bones, right? Teeth too. I bet that’s why the Gangly liked them.”

“Unicorns aren’t real, though.”

“That’s what they said about the Ganglies,” said Jordan.

*

Twinkies: 1/10

Threw them up. I’m sick. Jordan’s sicker. Stupid dented donut hole cans.

He didn’t say I told you so. That’s why we’re best friends.

*

Zebra Cakes: 7/10

Jordan taught me how to sleep in trees tonight. We found the Zebra Cakes suspended among the branches in a dead pilot’s bag. The box showed a happy cartoon unicorn zebra—zebracorn?—saying, Magical Munchies for One-of-a-Kind Cravings!

The pilot’s mummified skin hung limp and empty inside the flight suit. Not Ganglies this time—all the bones were still there, just a little jumbled up. Ganglies can reach pretty high, but they don’t climb trees.

To sleep in a tree, you tie your hammock between two big branches and let the wind rock you to sleep. We used the dead pilot’s parachute. Jordan and I curled up together like the Zebra Cakes, two in a pack. The cakes had gone stale, but we didn’t care. Everything tastes great when you’re swinging peacefully under starlight with your best friend.

The dead pilot had a dog collar in their bag too, a worn pink one with a brass buckle, tucked in a pouch with some photos and a wallet. I hoped that meant the dog got away safe.

“I had a dog once,” said Jordan. “Back before.” He didn’t usually talk about the days before the Ganglies. “Dogs used to be wolves, you know. Before we tamed them.”

“We should’ve let them stay wolves.” The Ganglies had picked the dogs off pretty quick. Dogs didn’t have the sense to keep quiet and climb trees like people did.

I miss dogs.

I thought about wolf-taming while I lay there stargazing with Jordan warming my back, about cavemen huddled around bright fires to keep the howling wolves away. Except one day a hungry pup scooched close enough for somebody to toss it a bone. You had to tame things a little at a time. First step: don’t kill each other on sight.

After Jordan fell asleep, I licked one of his unicorn horn dice. It didn’t taste like much of anything, but neither do my teeth, and they’re probably made of bone too.

I’ve added “bone” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. I’d take another Zebra Cake over bones any day. But there aren’t going to be anymore Zebra Cakes, are there? Or zebras, for that matter.

Someday zebras will be like unicorns. Nobody will believe they were ever real.

*

Pocky: ??/10

We shouldn’t have slept in the tree. The Ganglies can’t climb, but they can sniff out crumbs. Must have been ten of them down there by morning.

We threw down the dead pilot to distract them. They picked the bones one by one out of his mummified skin like a plastic wrapper.

Wish I hadn’t seen that. It’s all I could think about when I opened the Pocky. They snap in half just like old bones. Chocolate-dipped old bones.

Jordan tore open his shin sliding down the tree once the Ganglies left. I had to sew it up with twisty-tie wire from a bag of moldy hot dog buns. Jordan cried a little. I gave him the whole box of Pocky to make him feel better, which is why I can’t rate them. I hope we don’t have to sprint again soon.

“You ever feel bad for them?” he asked, once he stopped crying.

“The Ganglies? Nah. Bunch of evil aliens. They ate both my moms. I hate them.”

Jordan crunched the chocolate off his Pocky stick. The sound made my teeth itch. “I feel bad for them. My theory is they’re starving. They crashed here with no way home, and nothing but bones to digest. Being hungry sucks. Like, if we went to Candyland, we’d be serial killers, right? The Licorice King and Gumdrop Princess would run screaming from us.”

Stupid Jordan. I want to write about Pocky, but now my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten just makes me feel like a Gangly.

*

Strawberry Twizzlers: 10/10

Okay, Jordan was right. I’d totally eat the Licorice King. Sue me.

*

Pickle in a Bag: 8/10

They have such a good crunch it doesn’t even matter they’ve turned pee-yellow from age. Their mascot is a cartoon pickle with big googly eyes. We ate so many we both smell like librarians now. We needed it after such a close call.

Jordan and I fell in with a minor league baseball team, the Ferndale Razors, while foraging at the old stadium. I thought maybe the stadium would have fried pickles, and I don’t have many things under “P” in my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, especially after skipping the Pocky.

Instead we came across the Razors’ secret base in the concession stands. They told us they don’t normally show themselves because the Ganglies don’t know to look for them down there, which keeps them safe. But Jordan was crying because his leg hurt, just sat in the bleachers bawling, and they felt so bad for us they made an exception.

See? Everyone makes exceptions for kids.

The players helped us down the bleachers to the lower levels, which wasn’t easy for Jordan, since the elevators were out. The Razors gave Jordan a shot of medicine in his leg, then let us eat whatever we wanted from the concessions stash, which was good because I’ve been tightening my Taekwondo belt a whole lot recently.

“What I don’t get,” said Mr. Aaron, their catcher, in a comfortable drawl, “is how y’all have survived this whole time just the two of you, without proper shelter. The Ganglies track just about anyone not locked down deep these days. It’s why most of us have gone underground.”

“Jordan’s lucky,” I told him, because it’s true. Just yesterday he found a four-leaf clover.

Staying with the Razors was the luckiest thing of all, though. The Razors were strong and smart, and Jordan and I were tired of running. And if we stayed at the stadium, we could have popcorn and donuts forever.

We didn’t have the chance to even try the donuts because the Ganglies attacked that night. The sound of bones getting slurped from bodies just below your bunk bed will wake up anyone. Jordan raced up the ladder and burrowed with me deep under the sheets like the monsters might overlook us if we kept a blanket over our eyes.

That’s how my moms died. Burrowed under the covers while I watched from the closet. Blankets won’t protect you from anything but the cold.

I thought I’d try to help the Razors, or at least make them forget about Jordan. I cinched my yellow belt tight, counted to one hundred Mississippi, and ninja-rolled out of the bunk bed. I threw some punches at the long spindly legs retreating into the dark. One of the Razors—the pitcher, I think—was yelling bloody murder. I grabbed for his arms as a Gangly dragged him by the legs, and for a few seconds I thought we were both going straight into the shadow realm. But I lost my grip and the monster took him.

It was dim, almost dawn I guessed. A Gangly squatted over the dead baseball players, rummaging through the corpses. It fished out a small white skull, popped it into its razor-tooth mouth, and chewed it slowly, like those half-popped kernels you find in the bottom of the bag. You don’t really notice how small a skull is until you see it outside someone’s head.

I was real mad, and figured we were about to die anyway, so I started chucking bagged pickles at it just as hard as I could. “Go away! Get! Begone, you!”

It poised, rocking on mismatched hind legs for a sec. That stumpy walk again!  Then it threw a pickle in a bag at me. The package exploded, splashing pickle juice all over my Taekwondo dobok. The pickle slid under a chair, leaving the wrapper empty. Just a cartoon Mr. Pickle staring up at me, flat and boneless. The Gangly folded up into the shadows, and was gone.

Jordan and I stuffed our pockets and bags full of food and went on our way. It sucked to lose all the free donuts, but no way were we living in there with all the bodies. Not when the Ganglies could come back at any moment. Instead we gorged on pickles and hit the road.

If the same Gangly that killed the convoy people also killed the baseball players, maybe there aren’t that many Ganglies after all. But why are they following us? Do they hunt in packs? Did they take a shine to us? Are they waiting for us to ripen like stale candy canes after Christmas?

Sometimes when we bunk down for the night, we find a bagged pickle somewhere neither of us remembers leaving it, right where the shadows are thickest.

I wonder what we taste like to a Gangly.

#

Star Crunches: 0/10

I was crying so hard the Star Crunch just tasted like tears and snot, but it’s all I had in my pocket when I led the Ganglies away from poor hurt Jordan.

We’d stayed up all night playing D&D on the roof of an elementary school, which isn’t the best spot to hide from Ganglies since you can’t clear out all the classrooms. But the nurse’s office has medicine for Jordan’s leg, and the big flood lights keep the shadows away, so we risked it.

How come they keep finding us? How come we’re still alive when everyone else is dead? I miss my moms. I miss my dog. I miss not knowing what people look like on the inside.

I woke up when Star Crunches began pelting my sleeping bag. They arced sideways from over the edge of the building like hail in a windstorm. Some Ganglies down below had one of those rotating metal snack trees you find at gas stations. Our old stumpy-legged friend was working them off and lobbing them at the roof.

Jordan and I lay really quiet underneath a blanket, fending off the snacks, because really, what could you say about that? “They’re just trying to bait us,” I decided. “It’s a new hunting technique.”

“I bet they learned it from you,” said Jordan irritably, “when you threw them my unicorn dice.”

“Seriously, Jordan? No way you’re still mad about the dice.”

“Obviously. You can’t roll initiative with two d10’s. It’s not mathematically correct.”

Jordan’s such a punk, but you should never stay mad at anyone after the apocalypse. He looked really bad, honestly. He’d been getting paler and sweatier ever since we’d left the baseball stadium, and our food had run low. Jordan was already pigging out on Star Crunches.

Then a tree crashed into the rooftop. The Ganglies must’ve worked all night digging it up. They strolled right up the trunk like pirates on a gangplank, all spindly and uneven in the moonlight. So thin and a little wobbly, like when you’re fall-over hungry and can’t even make it to the table.

Maybe they’re not naturally gangly at all.

No way Jordan could run from them, not with his hurt leg. I whooped and hollered at the Ganglies, and bolted toward a spot where trees overhung the roof. “Go for the door, Jordan!”

I caught the sagging branches of an old elm leaning over the roof and climbed up as high as I dared. “Jordan? Jordan, you there?” I hadn’t heard any running, or the rusty door clanging closed. The Ganglies hung thick around the spot where I’d left him.

More Ganglies gathered around my tree. One of them gnawed on something. Maybe a dead deer. The shadow around the roots thickened, and another Gangly climbed out right underneath me.  I tossed the second Star Crunch into that shadow, into their dimension, but I missed, and it just glanced off the dirt. I felt just like a Gumdrop Princess in Candyland, begging it to please fill up on something else, please don’t notice Jordan, because I need him and anyway I’m not done with my journal yet.

I was all set to climb down just as soon as my heart stopped racing. Maybe if they ate me, they’d leave Jordan alone. But before I could pick a way down the branches, they unzipped the shadows again and slipped away ahead of the morning.

I ran all over the school looking for Jordan, whispering for him, screaming his name, lying on the rooftop sobbing while the sun dragged all the shadows long and spindly. But I didn’t find him. When I finally ran out of tears, I lay peering at the patch of leaves where the shadows had unzipped, waiting for the return delivery, the one they always made of the… unused bits. I didn’t want to see Jordan like that, all flat and empty without even his skull, but when it’s your best friend, you don’t really have a choice.

I waited all day, but they never sent him back. I’ve been waiting ever since.

Where are you, Jordan? Where did they take you? Are you in the shadow dimension still? They could’ve eaten us a billion times by now, but they always spared us. Are they finally out of adults to eat?

Whatever it is, I’m sick to death of running. I’ve got a plan to get into the shadow dimension. I’m saving Jordan if it kills me. And if he’s already gone? Well. I’d rather be eaten than live without him. There’s a reason they always come two in a pack.

Jordan, if you’re reading this, I’m really really sorry about your unicorn dice.

*

Gummi Bears: 10/10

My moms always used to say there’s good news and there’s bad news—which do you want first? You’re always supposed to ask for the bad news first. So here it is: I could only think of one way to get the Ganglies to open the shadow dimension, and I’m not proud of how I did it.

I had to walk a long time to find some adults. It was nearly a week of searching the outskirts of the city before I found it: the sleepy hum of generators, running water, and twinkling lights at dusk. I traced the sound to a complex of three greenhouses surrounded by a barricade of overturned semi trucks, patrolled by adults with guns.

I waved an empty foil wrapper to get their attention. “Help! Help me! Over here! My parents died, and I’m lost.” I made a big deal out of crying and wiping my grimy face on my Taekwondo uniform, which wasn’t so white anymore, and I slumped my shoulders so I looked really small and pathetic.

That got me brought inside real quick. Everyone makes exceptions for kids.

I liked how they’d Gangly-proofed their home. They’d rigged huge floodlights like from a football stadium all over the whole compound, especially inside the greenhouse. You had to sleep with a mask over your eyes to shut it out, but it kept the shadows away. I had salad for dinner for the first time in who knows how long. I’m adding something called kohlrabi to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. It looks kind of like Yoda if he turned into a vegetable.

I pretended to sleep until really late at night, curled up in a sleeping bag in the floodlit greenhouse next to the strawberry bed. When the guards swapped shifts at midnight and the compound got quiet, I crept on my knees to the wall socket and pulled the plug on the lights.

The Ganglies piled in immediately, sixseveneightnine before any of the adults could find the plug. I forced myself to crawl toward the Ganglies. They were coming in from under the snap pea bed. I didn’t even wait for them to get out of the way. I just threw myself between their legs into that blackness.

Which means I hit the ground in the shadow dimension face-first and bashed my nose. I’d landed on a walkway running along a series of pits or compartments open from above, almost like honeycombs. I pinched my fingers to stop the blood flow from my nose. A Gangly stepped over me on the walkway and dumped a pile of small, shiny packages into the nearest pit. Then it lowered itself into the compartment.

The Gangly’s long claws shot every which way, performing a thousand tiny chores: refilling a water bucket, organizing the snacks into a neat basket, and tucking the blankets around the kid who lived in the pit.

And this is where I have good news, because the kid was Jordan.

I made a huge mistake then and yelled his name. I was just so happy I couldn’t keep my voice quiet. A lot of things happened very quickly. The Gangly in the pit whirled around and skittered toward me, stumping on its shortened limb. Jordan tried to stand up, but he fell over. His leg was in a cast now. I realized all at once what horrible danger I was in and spun to find the way out, but other Ganglies were streaming back home, each with a shrieking adult in tow.

The stump-legged Gangly caged me in its limbs, pinning my arms to my side, and dropped me into Jordan’s pit. Hitting the floor didn’t hurt like I expected because all the snacks broke my fall. I kicked away a bag of gummi bears, unopened and undamaged, with that little air bubble inside from some far-off factory before we ever knew about Ganglies.

“Nadia?” Jordan crawled right into my arms. He was shaking so hard I thought his skeleton would shred his body and leave his skin-sack behind. “They got you too. I thought you got away.” He sounded wrung out, like he’d cried all the tears already. He looked good, though. Better color, stronger, even gained some weight. That chilled me, because you don’t have to be a serious brain genius to remember Hansel and Gretel.

“They’re going to eat us,” I said. “They’re saving us for dessert, aren’t they?”

Jordan slowly shook his head. He’d stopped trembling. “No. No, it’s nothing like that.”

My stomach turned in on itself, but you can’t digest fear. “Then what’s the deal?”

Jordan shushed me. “Nadia. Just hush a sec. Listen.”

The Ganglies trooped back from our dimension on the walkway under a dim gray sky that pulsed with red lights. A whole forest of legs, all of them gripping bones and skulls and more snack bags. Salted peanuts, chocolate-covered cherries, fun-sized potato chips. They distributed the treats into the pits, absolute masses of them, so many I wondered if they had a factory of their own. Then I heard it: high-pitched voices, kid voices, talking or crying or yelling bad words. All those honeycomb pits running out into the darkness.

“The kids didn’t get eaten,” I breathed. Jordan nodded, wide-eyed. I dropped to my knees and pulled him into a hug, just to feel him as close and warm as in the hammock that night under the stars. “Jordan. Jordan, what is this place?”

Jordan’s eyes glinted red in the weird light. “Can’t you tell? It’s our kennel.”

I didn’t understand what he meant until the stump-legged Gangly climbed back down into our pit and held out a clawed appendage. A pearly white bone gleamed there. It was one of the unicorn dice. It nudged a pack of gummis toward me. Gummis As Special As You, said the pink bear on the bag. The Gangly lifted a claw and gently, so gently, traced over my skull right through my hair. I’d expected it to be cold like an insect’s, but it was warm and velvety against my cheek. The gentle hand on a kitten’s head as it burrows, shaking, into your lap.

“Watch,” muttered Jordan. “It’s already sent me out once. That’s how I got my cast. You stay out as long as you’re working, but they like to bring you back between runs.”

It drew a pattern on the pit’s wall. The shadows ripped open. It was an asphalt road to a faraway town where the roofs sloped weird and I couldn’t understand the signs. Streetlights lit up every inch of the pavement, driving back the shadows, and beyond that a castle wall patrolled by adults with guns.

And as one type of fear died in my heart, another one replaced it.

“You just have to go through and get the adults to let you in. The Ganglies don’t hurt kids,” Jordan added blandly. “We get plenty to eat. They don’t eat our food anyway, so they just give it all to us.”

I didn’t need his explanation, because I knew the truth in my heart. It had happened a few times already, after all: we starve, we move, we find adults.

And when we eat, so do the Ganglies.

The Gangly handed me the bag of gummi bears. It nudged me toward the portal. Everyone makes exceptions for kids, but dogs have to earn their keep.

“Let’s get out of here, Jordan,” I pleaded. “We’ll find some adults. We’ll tell them what happened. We’ll stay with them. We don’t have to summon the Ganglies.”

“Doesn’t matter what we want,” said Jordan. “Didn’t matter with the Razors. The Ganglies will find us. Just a matter of time. How long did it take them to eat all the dogs, anyway? A year?” His head slumped to his chest. “I’m sick of running, Nadia. I’m tired.”

I opened the bag of gummi bears and shoved one of the green ones between my back teeth. It was tough at first, but the more I chewed, the more it softened and released its sweetness.

Suddenly I wanted to barf. All that gross and nasty junk food only ever filled you up for a while, and then you were hungry again, and you had to keep eating.

Jordan, Jordan, this isn’t what we wanted. We were supposed to grow up, go to high school, learn to drive, get black belts in taekwondo. We were supposed to run, fight, and survive together. Now we’re giving Candyland tours to Ganglies, and I can’t run away because every step I take would be away from you, and you’re all I have left.

But I realized something, Jordan. They don’t know us at all. They never should’ve let us get so close.

We are not pets. We are not the friendly cartoon wolf on a wrapper. We are the real thing. We have teeth and claws, and when we bare our teeth, it is not to smile. It is not just cakes that come in packs, you know.

They want to snack on us? Well, snacks come at a price, Jordan. And we will make them pay.


Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones. 


Previous stories by Rachael K. Jones that appeared in Diabolical Plots are: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in December 2015, “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” co-authored with Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and published in June 2017, “Hakim Vs. the Sweater Curse” in December 2017, and “The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” in April 2021. Her story “Makeisha In Time” was also reprinted in The Long List Anthology. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #79A: “Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments On Edits For ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol in a Human Subject'” by Andrea Kriz

Dear Editor,

We would like to thank the Reviewers for their, as always, insightful comments and you for submitting our paper to a third round of “blind” peer review—a rarity for the Journal of Molecular Magecraft! How fortunate that such an excellent team of biologists and Magi have dedicated their no doubt highly sought after free time to subjecting our manuscript, out of dozens accepted by your journal daily, to special scrutiny. We have addressed the Reviewers’ concerns on a point-by-point basis below.

Response to Reviewer 1

1. We have duly cited your the indicated study and apologize for our omission.

2. We would like to emphasize that the aforementioned study only demonstrated efficient Draconification in mice. Humans treated by the previous DNA modification spell only manifested secondary Draconid features, i.e. claws. In contrast, our Draconification incantation (which included both genetic and epigenetic components) resulted in complete homeosis of our human subject. In particular, this included spontaneous growth of wings from scapulae (Fig. 4a), transformation of the germline into fire-producing organs (Fig. 4b), and overall growth (Supplemental Video 1). Therefore, our manuscript does not represent, as the Reviewer seems to suggest, a merely incremental advancement in the field.

3. Even if our manuscript is only an incremental advance, the publication of the aforementioned study, with all its limitations, in Magica journal (average number of article citations: 40.33) demonstrates that our study is more than worthy of being published in the Journal of Molecular Magecraft (average number article citations: 11.01)  even if the corresponding author is not a Nobel laureate like the author of the aforementioned study.

4. We apologize for and have corrected the typos. The corresponding author takes responsibility for these mistakes. Unfortunately, typing has become much more difficult for the corresponding author as of late.

5. Unfortunately, we are unable to address this point as we are uncertain of its intent. We are aware of the whereabouts of the corresponding author of this study. She is one of the co-authors of this rebuttal. That last comment was entirely unnecessary.

6. The increased shipment of livestock to our Institute is entirely irrelevant to the goals and aims of our study and does not need to be explained to the Reviewer. Again, we have the situation under control. [Zu can u PLS c0nvince I.T. t0 c0me d0wn t0 my new 0ffice I kn0w its a trek but the damp/c0ld is g00d f0r my migraines –JD]

7. The Reviewer displays alarming Draconist tendencies in this comment. We would like to remind the Reviewer that Draconids do not frequently exhibit hoarding behavior and in fact this is a common misconception arising from Western legends of antiquity, cast, as is typical, through a lens of systematic bias and exploitation of magical beings. In special cases, a Draconid may cherish an especially undeserved and coveted possession and remove it from its owner’s grasp for a limited amount of time. But even in this case, the Reviewer’s Nobel Prize in Magecraft or Medicine is in no danger of such attention.

Response to Reviewer 2

Response to Major Concerns:

1. n=1 for all experiments, unless noted otherwise. We are aware that such a small sample size makes analysis difficult. Nevertheless, we have consulted numerous statisticians and oracles to ensure our interpretation of the data is as robust as possible. [Zu put a pl0t here t0 make this c0nvincing. –JD] Unfortunately, we were not able to find additional human volunteers willing to undergo the Draconification procedure in the limited time given for revising our manuscript.

2. Our Draconification protocol is completely reversible and any other presentation of the facts is blatant fear-mongering. However, we have added the requested supporting experiments to Figures 1, 4, and 5. If the Reviewer is still unable to appreciate that the results are thoroughly supported by the data then we advise the Reviewer to take download the raw data we have uploaded to the GEOMANCER public repository and shove it analyze them using xir own custom pipelines.

3. We can ASSURE you the Draconification protocol is reversible for reasons totally unrelated to the corresponding author’s last minute cancellation of her talk at the Immortalization Session of the 2021 Eternal Spring Harbor Laboratory Meeting last month. We resent the Reviewer’s implication that we are censoring data in favor of publishing our results ‘on the court of public opinion’, e.g. antagonistic Tweets at 2 a.m. [seri0usly when d0es xe find time t0 run xir lab between all this s0cial media? –JD]. We note that it is highly ironic that Reviewer 2 feels the need to lecture us on ethics when xe felt the need to forensically dissect the deep sequencing data of our subject and point out its epigenetic consistency with that of a 46 year old biological female of Eastern European ancestry subjected to high amounts of stress such as being scooped by a shoddily put together manuscript whose only merit is its sheer number and idiocy of mouse experiments. It is extremely inappropriate to compare this signature to the medical history of the corresponding author. We respectfully point out that millions of people live in the Greater Boston area (with millions more preferring not to live in the Greater Boston area and commute via portal). Thus any similarity between the Draconified subject data and any persons the Reviewer xe is familiar with, real or imagined, is entirely coincidental.

4. We acknowledge that it may appear, to the untrained human eye, that the time course in Figure 3 shows acceleration of the Draconification process in the subject in terms of claw/tooth length, scale coverage and, indeed, total lack of human features at the penultimate time point. [Zu did u get the new RNA-seq data d0 u think a repressi0n spell f0r the magically m0dded DNA may be viable? –JD] However, analysis in Supplemental Figure 7 shows that these changes are not statistically significant. The Reviewer does NOT need to remind the corresponding author of the 1945 Runestone Convention on Transmutation, vis-à-vis the Accord that humans not be transmuted for frivolous or combative purposes (with the exception of treatment of otherwise intractable disease and internationally beneficial scientific advancement). A violation has not occurred here. In any case, the corresponding author definitely values ancient agreements made by out of touch Magi over  real-life, pressing, matters, such as timely publication of any manuscript  instrumental to a successful-tenure evaluation.

5. It is completely inappropriate to bring up incidents that may or may not have occurred at a conference decades ago in a professional scientific review. There are no witnesses.

Response to Minor Concerns:

6. We have added the requested Western blot control (see Supplemental Figure 8e).

Response to Reviewer 3

We are sorry that Reviewer 3 was unable to comment on our edited manuscript due to tragic, unforeseen circumstances. We would like to point out that independent investigators have found no link between Reviewer 3’s injuries and the whereabouts of the corresponding author, and that anecdotal accounts of a particularly large Draconid flying over the Boston Helioport district are entirely coincidental. In any case, Reviewer 3 was left mostly unharmed by the incident and his airship definitely not funded through ill begotten grant money suffered the brunt of the fire damage.

We hope this rebuttal has sufficiently addressed the Reviewers’ concerns and look forward to your timely response regarding the status of our manuscript. Above all, we trust we have made it clear that it will not be necessary to send our manuscript back to the Reviewers for further comments. In any case, regardless of your final decision, the corresponding author looks forward to meeting you in ‘person’ at the International Congress of Organic and Magical Beings next week!

Best Regards,

Dr. Jane Dráček, corresponding author

Assistant Professor, Department of Chromatin Engineering

Massachusetts Enchanted Institute of Magitechnology

Zu Heiko, first author

PhD program in Alchemical Biology

Massachusetts Enchanted Institute of Magitechnology

et al.

[Zu pls fix typ0s and fig margins remove auth0r c0mments ESP THIS 0NE + send t0 editor. als0 PLS can u ask I.T. t0 come t0 my 0ffice an install Illustrat0r agin. sry for n0 0’s. br0ke new keyb0ard. damn claws. -JD]


Author’s Note: In academia, it’s typical to send research papers to journals where they undergo blind peer review. After the reviews are returned, the authors are given a chance to respond to reviewers’ comments, which can help the journal editor decide to accept or reject the manuscript. While these peer reviews and responses have historically not been published, there has been a recent movement to do so to make publishing more transparent. Reading some of these, as well as going through the process myself, it struck me how much of a story is often apparent from the peer reviews themselves – completely apart from the science. Academic rivalries can rear their heads, research fields can split apart, and even entire careers can hang in the balance. As a scientist, I also wondered how researchers would study magic with the scientific process if it existed in our world. Especially, how would these magic researchers get their papers through peer review? What kind of extreme experiments might they be pushed to do in the name of novelty and getting published? The answer is, of course, absolutely none and there is nothing wrong or suspicious about the peer review and response above 🙂 [this is the version with track changes and comments removed right???]

Andrea Kriz writes from Cambridge, MA. Her stories are upcoming in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed and have appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Nature, and Interstellar Flight Magazine, among others. Find her at https://andreakriz.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @theworldshesaw. 


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DP FICTION #78B: “The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” by Alexandra Seidel

The interest in Thea Wells even outside of the circle of art lovers and connoisseurs remains strong, and conclusions about her work range from the normal, technical approach of art critics to the downright strange explanations of the ardent believers in the paranormal. To give a brief overview of her art, it does not do to linger too much on either end of this spectrum. Instead, a few key paintings of Wells may be seen as markers of her arc as an artist, of where she started, of where she ended. These paintings also show the overlap between the mundane and those who seek the supernatural in Wells’s work. Other pieces, such as Watercolor of an Ash Tree or Sketch of a Cityscape from the Ledge may have sold for five figures, but they never wove that aura of mystery around themselves.

The evolution of Thea Wells’s skill does not just lie in the brushstrokes and her increased mastery of light and shadow, but also in how she approaches her subject. Most art critics agree on this, and they will point to Shadows of Winged Insects Before a Flame or Breath, from the Inside. Her skill is best savored through select prints of her work, viewed in chronological order. The prints, while they allow paintings scattered in museums and hidden away in private collections all over the world to be seen next to one another, do not convey the vibrancy of the originals and the enchanting quality that makes people stand in front of a Wells and examine it, sometimes for hours.

*

Féli in Nightgown

This is the earliest painting that shows Wells’s lover Félicity M in the classic odalisque pose. Even to this day, no one was able to find out what this elusive muse’s real last name was, where she came from, how she and Wells met. She would usually introduce herself without giving any further details about herself, brushing off curiosities in a polite and joking manner.

In the painting, Féli looks away. She reclines on a lavender colored ottoman, and looks at the observer with her green eyes half closed. Her phone is on a cushion on the floor, her left hand just hovering over the screen.

The door to a balcony is open in the background, and light spills in on a gust of wind that stirs the curtains.

Wells took great care to let us know what we can’t see under the nightgown. Féli’s breasts are delicately outlined against the thin, silky fabric, and the strands of dark hair that run over them reveal more than they cover. Her waist lets the nightgown flow like cream, and the long legs, though they are covered, are tensed as if in pleasure.

Notably, this painting was Wells’s breakthrough. Ever since it went on display it has been targeted by thieves—though thankfully none have succeeded.

*

The Masque

The Masque was painted perhaps a year after Féli in Nightgown at a time when Wells had made it big in the art world, when her paintings were fetching five or six figures (though only the works painted after Féli in Nightgown. Her paintings prior to this are a completely different style, and they lack the later works’ pull.)

The Masque not surprisingly shows a masquerade, but Féli is the only guest, repeated nine times in nine different costumes.

She is an emerald-feathered bird with beak mask, a golden shimmering queen, a harlequin in chequered dress that shows her smooth skin generously.

As a ballerina, her legs are elongated by pointe shoes, she captivates with khol-lined eyes as a mystic with a custard pale snake draped over her shoulders and scales held in on hand, and enchants as a fairy princess with a necklace of black beads coiled around her neck.

Dressed in a robe of stars, she is the night, and with a milky sunrise costume that begins to let Wells’s light and dark mastery show, she is the day.

The ninth costume is unusual. It is hidden in the back, near a curtain and the darkness at the edges of the painted room. Féli is wrapped in a dark robe, a dark hood, and a white mask covers her entire face. She holds a book in the crook of her left arm, and we cannot see much of the volume, except that it appears heavy and old. The mask seems to follow the onlooker. It is a haunting shape, and it could be someone else entirely watching the scene unfold and the observer alike but for the pale hand that reaches up as if to pull back the black hood. It is a woman’s hand, and it looks like that of Féli hovering over her phone in Féli in Nightgown.

The Masque was first owned by a museum, but not for long. A private collector acquired it, and some sources have come forward over the years to claim the museum sold the piece because the people handling it, the people working in the museum and walking past it every day, suffered nightmares in which a hooded shape wearing a white mask featured prominently. The veracity of these claims is doubtful, even if Internet forums are full of stories of people who say they saw The Masque on display and also had the dreams.

*

Sunbathing

This is a captivating piece that attracts crowds, so much so that museum authorities decided to keep the painting in its own room and allow visitors in only in groups, each group being allowed just thirty minutes with the painting.

Sunbathing is, at first glance, quaint. It was painted probably less than a month after the completion of The Masque. Féli is the very center of this painting. She sits, cross-legged, on a green and white beach towel, sand and beach grasses around her, the ocean a distant haze of blues in the background. She smiles. It is a very subdued smile and has been likened more than once to that of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Féli is wearing a black bathing suit. The color is harsh against the pastels of the towel and the beach, but her green eyes are sharper still as they look outward, to the observer.

A bag by Féli’s left knee spills over with things people do not normally take to the beach. There are old-fashioned metal scales, beads bound on a string, a mechanical music box. The strangest thing entirely about this painting, however, is the tome that lies open on Féli’s lap, big and old, its pages possibly parchment, bound in leather. It pulls one back immediately to the book the dark figure cradles in her arm in The Masque. Experts have studied the open page. It is covered in the same script that has baffled scholars in the Voynich Manuscript for decades, and just like that enigma, what can be seen of Féli’s book remains untranslated and not understood. The book was not among Wells’s possessions, and it might be entirely a figment of the painter’s imagination.

*

The Diners

This painting is seen as the first sign in Wells’s art that her relationship with Féli was coming undone. It is dated to almost two years after The Masque and Sunbathing, and experts have long speculated that there must have been other paintings of Féli between these two. Whether they remain in private collections, tucked away from the eyes of the world, or whether Wells herself destroyed them is uncertain but a matter of great debate.

In The Diners, Féli is seen having dinner with a stranger. The table is elaborately set, there are glasses one behind the other, and they twist and reflect the room, the table, the food; more than one enthusiast has found hidden symbolism here, like messages glimpsed in a crystal ball.

Red flowers spill their petals on the white tablecloth and the pinkish bloody meat served on a silver platter. Féli’s guest is a man of supreme beauty. He outshines Féli entirely. His hair is dark like hers, as are his eyes, but his lips are flushed with color. Between the two, on the white tablecloth and hidden behind the glasses and the wilting flowers, there is the book again, now closed, and Féli’s guest has his palm flat on the cover, fingers splayed. Neither Féli nor he spare the book any more attention than that; they are focused on each other.

They are leaning in close, caught in conversation. Underneath the table, Féli’s hand is resting high on the stranger’s thigh, and his free hand vanishes under her dress. There is much speculation as to whether this really happened, or whether it was some sort of vengeance, whether Wells put this scene on canvas for all eternity to see Féli as unfaithful. No one knows who the stranger is, and the painting was sold to an unknown buyer at an auction ten years ago.

*

The Chef

This shows Wells’s mastery of light and dark. Féli has her back turned and stands in Wells’s kitchen over pots and pans bubbling on the stove. She is wearing a figure-hugging dress, long and black, and her shadow can be seen on the floor, stretching beyond where the canvas ends.

The light in the kitchen appears ephemeral, there is no source for it, no lamp, and no window. On Féli’s left, ingredients wait to be tossed into the pots, onions and carrots peeled and chopped, chunks of glistening, bloody meat in a dish, the legs and head of a rooster.

Féli has a dark teal vial in her left hand. It could be an oil or spice. She is about to pour it into a pot.

Her hair is coiled and piled on top of her head, and strands spill out like Medusa’s serpents.

After The Chef, Wells’s erstwhile prolific nature changed; she became even more of a recluse and produced only two paintings to sell, though it is speculated these were older works from her private collection. Several dozen unfinished paintings begun after The Chef all show Féli, though they fail to move beyond a mere sketch.

The Chef was loaned to a gala opening at one point, for a single evening. There are reliable sources saying that all the meat dishes served at that opening were spoilt and inedible. Yet, the food had been freshly prepared on that very day. While meat going bad can be more likely attributed to other factors such as temperature and improper handling, some blame the painting for it.

*

The Finale

The Finale is the title given to this painting by curators. Some call it The Last or even The Omega. Wells herself never gave it a name.

This painting was discovered in Wells’s atelier along with her corpse, though the date of its completion is uncertain. The painting is large, ten by seven feet, and it seems to be a riddle inside a riddle inside a riddle.

It shows a circus ring, and many things are happening there at once.

One of the first things that we see is the book, the big tome Wells so often added when she painted Féli. It is once again being held by a figure in black, robed and hooded, wearing a white mask. This time, the hooded figure reminds us of The Masque, but appears decidedly male and is looking toward the center of the ring. In his arms, the book is open. He holds up one finger as if he were reading from it and commanding the listener’s attention. We also see Féli opposite the robed figure. She is dressed like a belly dancer. Most of her skin is visible. Snakes wreathe and slither around her body, her waist, her breasts and ankles, and the expression on her face is one of boundless joy and ecstasy.

A white tablecloth catches the light in the background. It is set on the ground almost as if for a picnic, though plates and silverware and glasses indicate something more elaborate. There is wine in one of the glasses and a pinkish shimmer on one of the plates. The teal vial from The Chef sits on the tablecloth, unstoppered, though whether it is full or empty, we cannot see. Apart from that, there is no food.

Seemingly random items are scattered on the ground. Black beads are spilled like breadcrumbs, and paper has been torn and strewn alongside them, old paper with traces of writing on it that has, unsurprisingly, prompted unsuccessful efforts to reassemble the torn pieces seen in the painting and decipher their meaning. Other things we are shown are the tools of Wells’s trade: brushes, paints, all strewn haphazardly, including one canvas that has fallen face down so that we cannot say what painting it is. Another item that has caused speculation is an envelope. On it there is once more the indecipherable writing from the Voynich Manuscript, and we are left to wonder what message it contains.

In the center of the ring, drawn in shadows, is Wells herself, dressed in red and gold as the ringmaster. She is facedown, and her pale brown hair scatters in the puddle of blood under her. All of the fingers in her right hand stand at odd angles, broken. Her costume bears traces of paint, and it is torn in places. The violence is tangible.

An urban legend surrounds this painting, which is now housed in the Thea Wells Museum after it spent long years in police evidence. The legend says, when you focus your gaze on the figure in black who is reading from the book, you will dream and the dream will have no color at all. You will find yourself in perfect blackness, and there will be music around you as if heard from a distance, carnival music that echoes strangely distant and metallic, as if it echoed from an old music box.

*

That last, untitled painting is disturbing. It becomes even more so when viewed side by side with the photographs taken by the police of the scene they found in Wells’s atelier, or at least those that were leaked following her death. While those crime scene photos say nothing about Wells as a painter, they bear mentioning because they seem to echo The Finale. Wells can be seen facedown in her own blood. In reality, Wells wore a simple red shirt and no costume, but the tears in the fabric, as far as visible in the photographs, match up with the tears we see on the ringmaster’s costume in the painting. Wells’s blood has dried to a dull maroon, not the scarlet seen on the canvas. She was cut and bruised, her right hand—the hand she painted with—revealed to have been broken extensively.

Wells had been attacked. In the police report, leaked shortly after the photographs, one officer said they had only ever seen wounds like that in the mountains, when a bear found a hiker and took them down with claws and teeth. No wild animals were reported in the area of Wells’s residence, and no other signs of them were found in Wells’s atelier.

One thing that is different in reality is the negative of a shape in the dried puddle of Wells’s blood. It appears as if something large and rectangular was there when Wells bled out. When she was found, it had been removed. Some claim it was the tome, that leatherbound strangeness, that kept the floor clean where it lay because it drank all the blood that touched it.

Thea Wells’s murder remains unsolved.

Féli has never been seen again, not even at Wells’s funeral. However, if you look closely at all the photographs taken of that event, you will see a figure among the celebrities and pedigreed royals who have come to say farewell to a genius artist who defined a generation. The figure is in only one or two photos, and they seem to be wearing a long, dark robe. While their face is shadow-wrapped, it appears pale, smooth, mask-like. It could just be one of the mourners, seen from an odd angle with unfavorable lighting. Or not.

The question of the dark man, Féli’s alleged lover, also remains. When The Diners first sold—minutes after it was hung in the gallery—people asked Wells about him. Wells refused to say anything about the painting or its subjects, having become eccentric and like a modern-day hermit by that time already.

To this day, Wells’s paintings attract not just art-lovers and historians but also believers in the supernatural. The police are regularly called to Wells’s grave to break up séances held by self-proclaimed mediums and their congregations.

Féli remains a mystery as well. Yet, one art historian has told this author, in confidence and on the condition that their name not appear in this article, that they have seen Féli, her face, her dark hair and green eyes, her uncannily pale skin and distinctive features. The historian found her on another canvas, which cannot be clearly attributed to an artist. Yet, that canvas was confidently dated to more than 300 years ago. It is the portrait of a seated woman who looks exactly like Wells’s Féli. Far in the background, one can just make out the sinking bulges of a circus tent, a harlequin in their chequered dress walking inside through the flap. This painting’s basis in reality, just like its creator, is not clear. How it managed to capture the woman that appears in Wells’s paintings 300 years later, is unknown.


Alexandra Seidel writes strange little stories while drinking a lot of coffee (too much, some say). Her writing has appeared in Future SF, Cossmass Infinities, and Fireside Magazine among others. You can follow her on Twitter @Alexa_Seidel or like her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AlexaSeidelWrites/), and find out what she’s up to at alexandraseidel.com. As Alexa Piper, she writes paranormal romance books which have been rumored to make people laugh out loud in public.


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DP FICTION #78A: “Fermata” by Sarah Fannon

Content note(click for details) Content note: abuse

The week I moved into my old family home, the brick one that sat like a triple-layered cake at the end of the street, I spent each day and into the night repainting every wall. Mint living room, yellow bathroom, pink bedroom. I chose gaudy colors that would have sat like a bad taste on my mother’s tongue anytime she thought of it, were she alive. Colors that felt like touching sunshine.

It was strange to stand in my childhood bedroom as a woman who was starting to find her first gray hairs when the light hit her head just so in the bathroom. It wasn’t like going back in time, exactly, but like finding embarrassing photos of yourself. I looked at the walk-in closet and could almost feel the clothes brushing the top of my head from all the times I hid in there with a flashlight and book on nights when I wanted to muffle the sound of my mother’s clarinet floating up through the house. My memories of nighttime, even ones that didn’t involve the house or my mother, always carried a sharp echo of that instrument. It wasn’t the sound I’d hated, but the dread that each note might be her last. The final trill always led to a fearful silence.

She’d left me the house in her will, and with its mortgage paid off, it was a bigger and better place than I could ever hope to afford on my own. I couldn’t resist the illusion that I could transform it and make it mine, but so far I felt naive for thinking repainting would be enough. I left my old room, newly pink from yesterday’s efforts, to enter the room I’d put off until the end. Every day I’d painted until I was too drained to carry on, and then left to pass out on an air mattress in the apartment I was leaving. I didn’t want to stay in the house until it was finished. But the apartment lease was up and I only had her room left to refresh.

I stood over my mother’s bed, which was still covered with her garden of pillows that were only there for decoration. She would have been furious to know that her death wasn’t some dramatic crescendo; that it had no flair. One unmarked evening a few weeks ago she fell asleep like any other night and just never woke up. The boring nature of it delighted me. I lay on top of the covers and smiled up at the ceiling. I thanked God that I hadn’t been guilted into a hospital bed visit where she would have taken my hand in her wrinkled claws and sent me off with one last conversation that felt like a slap in the face, desperate to have the last word. Instead, she’d simply died.

Despite living in the same city, I hadn’t seen her in years. Family friends and neighbors cheerily asked me about her in grocery store aisles or when I was in line to drown my popcorn in butter at the movie theater. We don’t talk much, I’d tell them. Hell has a bad connection. I liked watching them fumble with the words like they were a squirming cat they didn’t know how to hold. They might laugh nervously or sometimes sincerely, but across the board, they all seemed to study me for a sign of which of the two of us was in hell.

After resting in her bed, I began to paint her eggshell room forest green. My arm was tired, but the up and down movement of the paintbrush was soothing. Avoiding this room until the end made it feel like the cathartic cherry on top. With each stroke, I painted over her with the deep color of trees, of summer days at the park with my dad that I could barely remember outside of the blurry shape of happiness, like watching a family video. Green dripped onto her jewelry box and I made a note that I’d need to take nice photos of the contents to sell. I was going to sell everything of hers, except for her clarinet, which I’d thrown away first thing in the neighbor’s trash bin.

I spent the whole day in that room in a sort of trance. In an odd, sleep-deprived moment as I looked at myself in her dresser mirror, I painted over it too until I disappeared under the dark square. When I finished, I collapsed on the bed again, paintbrush still in hand, and the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes with the heaviness of having fallen asleep by accident. The darkness was unsettling, and I had the strange urge to turn my body and make sure there was no one sharing the darkness with me. I turned my head slowly and was relieved to find an empty bed. Still, I got up quickly, dusted myself off from my mother’s death spot. She was getting to me without even being there.

On my way out the door, a childhood habit moved through me unconsciously, and I looked toward the dresser mirror. Growing up, I was usually crying when I left my mother’s room, and since she tutted at me for being an ugly crier, I often checked my reflection on the way out to see if she was right. But this time, there was no reflection, just self-created blankness.

I was worn out from the day but didn’t want to fall asleep in my own sweat and grit. I headed to the bathroom at the end of the hallway and turned on the shower head, then ran downstairs to grab towels from the properly labeled moving box. When I got back to the bathroom, something felt off. Steam pressed against the mirror and I could feel the heat, so it took a moment to realize what was missing: I couldn’t hear the water. I peered into the shower and watched the stream of water pummel into the bathtub, but it made no noise. Rather than being paralyzed by this fact, it put me into erratic motion. 

I moved naked through the house with paint splotches like bruises on my body, looking almost pagan. The floors didn’t creak beneath my feet, not even the loud spot I used to tread so lightly on to avoid waking my mother when I was up past my bedtime or running away, only ever making it a few blocks before I snuck back in and returned the supplies to their rightful spots.

I went downstairs and into the kitchen, and there was no hum when I opened the fridge. I wandered the house knocking on cabinets and slamming doors and every action was met with nothing but stone cold quiet, as if I weren’t even moving. It gave me the unnerving thought that there was no way to know if there was anyone or anything around each corner or hiding behind doorways or even stepping right behind me, far enough to not leave their breath on my neck. I thought about how I’d woken up in my mother’s old bed with the feeling that I was not alone, and how much easier it would be for a thing to slide to the ground and under the bed if I couldn’t hear it move.

Once I’d had enough of testing sounds that never happened, I slipped into a bathrobe and ran out the front door without even closing it, my feet brushing against hushed grass. There was no wind, no whoosh of a car even as I watched one drive by, no suburban choir of dogs. I ran in circles in the yard, senselessly thinking that enough speed might jumpstart noise. I was grateful that it was late, and the neighbors were hopefully asleep. The same neighbors who used to see my mother and me on weekend walks when I was young and would tell me in chirpy, “adult” voices that my mother was a saint for all the work she did for the neighborhood association, and how I was lucky to have such a strong person to hold down the fort in a single-parent household.

At the time, I thought maybe they didn’t notice how I was skittish as the bunnies they captured in their front yards so they wouldn’t nibble on their gardens. I used to stand in front of those metal traps and consider setting the rabbits free, even going so far as to check each house window for spying faces, but I never went through with it, just like I could never commit to running away. And maybe the neighbors didn’t notice that the “darling” outfits my mother dressed me in were always long sleeved, even in the baking summer. To this day, I gravitate towards long sleeves, even with nothing to cover, because she used to tell me that my arms and legs were fat and that was the real thing worth hiding. Over time I realized it wasn’t necessarily that the neighbors were ignorant, but that it was just easier to keep their eyes moving and mind their business. Despite the way they treated my mother like queen bee, the neighborhood was nothing like a beehive. Too many closed doors. Better for the neighborhood.

It suddenly occurred to me that many of those neighbors were probably gone, whether by death or relocation. I’d moved into an old home and an old neighborhood that had very little trace of my past left, and yet, I still managed to feel like I had willingly walked back into the rabbit trap.

I gave up on the front yard and ran out into the street, where I suddenly heard my feet thump against the sidewalk, as well as a late-night sprinkler taking care of a neighbor’s lawn. I got on my knees and leaned my head against the ground to take a moment to revel in the weird whisper of summer bugs and a faraway ambulance cry that rang like sweet music right then and there. If I hadn’t felt so exposed, I would have stayed there all night until the birds sang the sunrise into being. But I knew I had to go back to the house.

When I re-entered, I closed and locked the door behind me with relief, but then felt my heart plummet as the door didn’t make a click. I stayed still and realized that being back on the property meant I was back in the void and the kind of emptiness I always associated with outer space. Upstairs, the silent shower was still running. I got into the bathtub and sat under its stream, but I didn’t scrub with soap or wash my hair, just let it run over me.

The new bed I had ordered wouldn’t arrive until the next day. I had planned to sleep in my childhood twin bed that was still there for some reason, my old bedroom untouched like my mother’s shrine to what she considered better times, but when I wearily got to the doorway, I imagined twisting and turning myself onto the floor and made my way to my mother’s room instead.

I got under the covers on what would have been my father’s side. My damp hair left a mark like a lake on the pillow. Even though I tried forcing my eyes to stay closed and my body to calm down, I started to cry, and it felt good to see the pillowcase getting wetter, as if proof in this muted landscape of what I was feeling. I opened my mouth and screamed into the house, into its guts, feeling my jaw get sore and my throat get hoarse without a single sound ever touching the air. I started to project things into the gaping silence. I became convinced that if I turned around, my mother would be right there, or at least some part of her, able to exist through pure spite and disgust of me. I turned as much as I dared and could see something in the dark. Maybe it was her, maybe it was just the dark wearing itself like a costume. I decided to close my eyes and bury my head in the pillow.

And yet, despite the crushing sensation of silence, the way it pressed down on me like so many years of built-up hatred, I could not shake the imagined sound of that damned clarinet echoing against the walls. Once it started, I only prayed that it would never stop. The shape in the bed, whether my mother or a nightmare, would move as soon as the music ended; would take the bell and the barrel and the keys and the mouthpiece to turn my body into a score only I could hear.


Sarah Fannon is a graduate of George Washington University’s Honors English and Creative Writing program and she continues to live in the DC area. Her work is featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Dark Moon Digest, Divination Hollow Reviews, miniskirt magazine, The NoSleep Podcast, and the LGBTQ+ horror anthology, Black Rainbow. You can find her on Twitter @SarahJFannon and Instagram @ampersarah


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Aug 1st: Submission System Glitch (RESOLVED)

Sorry, folks. Diabolical Plots SHOULD have opened to submissions (at 1am, Central Time), but alas — the hatch is jammed. There is a technical glitch. Our mutant hamsters have eaten our operating manual.

Apologies, all. We expect a fix towards evening, US-time. Stay tuned for updates!

ETA: This has been resolved and as of the evening of August 1st (US time) the submission portal is up and running!

DP FICTION #77B: “Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

A mech could breathe for a person, fill the pilot chamber with oxygen or pipe it through slender tubes that sat in their nose, winding behind their ears. A mech could walk for someone, taking thoughts and the slightest twitch of their muscles and translating them into smooth footsteps that indented the earth. A mech could allow someone to work to pay their debts, giving them employment they long thought was impossible. For Caris, the mech did all. Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.

Her unit was sleek black carbon fiber, ten feet tall and humanoid in shape, albeit with elongated arms and legs. Where the head should be was the cockpit, surrounded by layers of acrylic that was supposedly bullet-proof, not that they were supposed to test that. Both hands had three fingers, perfect for grasping and pulling but not otherwise very dexterous. Someone had painted dark green stripes onto the mech, alongside a unit number, a kudzu winding up one leg. This was the eco-corps.

Humanity had done a very good job of fucking things up, environmentally speaking. By the time people had thought to fix things, it was almost too late. Invasive plants choked the life from the soil, while feral bioengineered animals presented a very real threat to life and limb. It was possible to send people out to manually clear plants and kill animals, but it was safer to send out people in mechs. They did the work of five, and as it turned out, the units interfaced well with people who had disabilities of almost every form. It was an employment option where there wasn’t one before. It was a hint of danger in the air, the possibility that they would have to fight and face down man-made monsters. It was too tempting to resist and for Caris, it meant making a dent in her own medical debt. Three hundred thousand a year, and that was one medication. Besides, the corps had health insurance. Deep down, if pressed, Caris would talk about the books she read as a child, the glossy magazines she received at her house monthly, filled with pictures of animals and places that no longer existed in their unaltered forms. Before reality had set in, she wanted to make documentaries or be a park ranger or save animals. This was the next best thing.

The cadets used clumsy and ancient mechs for their training. There was noticeable lag between the embedded jack that went into your head and actual movement of the mech’s body. Compared to that, Caris’ new unit responded instantly, each step fluid. She had thought she would have to get used to the balance and weight of a body not her own once again, but it was like slipping on a second skin.

She saw her fellow alumni practicing similar movements. They moved gracefully, almost lightly, in the constrained space of the mech bay, knowing they had just a few hours to practice before they were actually sent out into the field. They had to earn their keep, the pressure placed on all their heads all the more heavily for their perceived weaknesses. Prove your worth, some said. Prove your productivity. Prove the value of your disabled life.

“Hey Lungs,” a voice crackled over her headset, “you practicing ballet or you piloting a mech?” Harsh laughter accompanied it. Turning the unit, Caris could see some former students watching every move she made—people who had graduated from the real military, piloting combat units. It was easier, at least financially, to lump every mech together in the same building, rather than build separate facilities, but it was more difficult for the pilots. Sometimes it seemed like the other operators enjoyed showing off their physical prowess, working out conspicuously, always laughing with their eyes on the eco-corps. “How you like playing dress up, Lungs? Feel good to be wearing our cast-offs?” Caris had earned her nickname only recently, when a coughing spasm had overtaken her in the middle of the bay, racking her body until blackness was crowding the edges of her vision.

Another voice cut in. “Shut the fuck up, Booker. Go enjoy being cannon fodder somewhere else.” Jordan, one of Caris’ former classmates, managed to sound permanently pissed off whenever they spoke.

“How is it feeling?” Caris asked, afraid that reality wouldn’t match up to expectations. The small twitches and arm movements that piloted her new robotic partner didn’t aggravate her body, but arthritis was a different beast from Jordan’s own Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

“Feels fucking great. Do you even remember running?”

“Not really,” Caris laughed, and suddenly she and Jordan were running full tilt side by side. It was an extension of her body, more natural than anything else she had felt. She was large. She was powerful. She was prepared to take on the world. She couldn’t even feel the jack in the back of her head, the oxygen tubes that wound around her head, feeling like a permanent tether at all other times. They were all a part of her now, flesh and metal indistinguishable in their purpose.

Well, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to do every task just yet. A scant few hours later, the corps members were dumped in Monterey County, up near the coast. Lots of land had been left to reseed and re-wild, but it needed more help than human hands could do alone. Kudzu duty it was, the incipient vine crawling up trees, its lush green a comforting lie of health. It was not dissimilar to the mucus in her lungs; a little lighter, maybe, but just as choking. Airways and veins, nightmares of a leaflet crawling out of her mouth to face the light, holding her in place more than oxygen ever could. To face all this, Caris had her metal body, by now pumping fluids into her with a small IV, nutrients via her feeding tube. She would never have to leave, if she didn’t want to.

It was going to be an easy in and out mission. The mechs would move forward, tearing out the kudzu as they went. They were supposed to get as close down to the root as they could; everyone was paid per pound of what they managed to pull up. The plant was never supposed to spread this far, but once it made a foothold in the west coast, it seemed to thrive, spreading more and more. It choked out all things beautiful and native, constricting them more and more. Caris’ lungs constricted in sympathy.

The squad leader followed behind, meandering in their own mech, which had a flamethrower attached. Scorched earth policy, fire units standing by. The land would recover from a fire. It wouldn’t recover from kudzu. Caris’ body would recover from the antibiotics that made her so ill she couldn’t physically leave her bed, but they would never recover from the scar tissue the mucus left behind.

There was an easy rhythm to the work, despite rumors passed around by other corps members about strange creatures and danger lurking in the hills⁠—both the real and the imaginary, Bigfoot and big cats. The mechs had music they could play, and Caris felt herself enjoying the physicality of hard labor. She hadn’t done this since she was a kid weeding her grandma’s garden. They’d banned her from playing in the dirt soon afterwards, afraid of the superbugs that might lurk within. Too late and too bad. They were already there, and like the vine, they had made enough foothold to make themselves comfortable. Each plant she pulled out was like extracting the liquid from within. She could even imagine a pleasant ache in her muscles, even as she knew they were perfectly fine. When she imagined herself extending an arm, the mech did it. Every step she took was just a fraction of a second behind thought. Her second skin may have been bulky and metallic, but it was swiftly becoming home. You’d have mental fatigue before physical fatigue doing this kind of work. Before she had fallen so ill, in the distant past, Caris could remember working hard and playing hard, and how it felt this effortless.

The corps members slowly spread out. Jordan had her unit do a comical, three-fingered wave as they marched off to their own section of land. The hills rose gently so that Caris was cut off visually from the others, but they always had open comms. Slowly she zoned out, imagining a future where she didn’t have to emerge from her pilot’s seat at the end of the day, so that she wasn’t going to spend her free time longing to feel arms and legs pumping so easily again.

Move forward, pull up a plant, move a step forward again. Watch the dead trees underneath reveal themselves, the bronchi of branches still reaching up to the sky. The crashing noises didn’t interrupt her until they were far too close. She whirled the unit around in a clumsy side step that nearly overbalanced her.

A wild hog regarded Caris slowly and carefully. It was one of the modified ones, descended from a pig that someone had made bigger and bigger, until it was the size of a small horse. Somewhere along the way, the pig had escaped and bred with existing wild population, bits of wild boar thrown in there for fun. The tusked monstrosity that stood before her was “kill on sight”; there was a fat bonus for killing feral pigs. The hog was next month’s supply of medication, wrapped in hundreds of pounds of muscle and fat.

They didn’t leave the corps members completely unarmed. With shaking fingers, Caris pushed a single button and her mech extended a machete, usually used to chop through unusually thick clusters of plants, but with an edge sharp enough that she could defend herself if need be. She could use that bonus. More altruistically, she knew that the pigs were something else that pushed out anything native and good from the environment, leaving only space for their own kind.

As the blade extended, the pig bolted, and with her heart pounding, Caris urged the unit forward, faster than they had ever done in practice, laughing at the exhilaration. “You need help?” Jordan called out, voice broken up by distance. Caris just laughed in response, imagining her hair streaming behind her, pretending that she wasn’t attached to a glorified oxygen tank.

The pig vanished right away, but she could hear its squeals. War mechs had heat vision; an eco mech had plain old vision and a guide in it that could identify any plant just by turning the unit’s optic receptors towards it.

Faster, faster. She still couldn’t see the hog, but Caris thought she had to be catching up. If pushed, she knew she could get 40mph out of her unit, and she had to be close to that now. Running so freely and so easily was something she had never imagined she would do again, even after a transplant. Pain free, legs pumping, no worrying about choking and having to stop to cough.

Suddenly, a large tree was looming too close, an oak draped in kudzu, standing in a clearing. She managed to stop, but barely, skidding and falling, feeling the jostle of the mech hitting the earth in her very bones. Getting up would be tricky, but not impossible.

Had she lost the pig? She managed to get her mech up again, damage report on her screen. Nothing too bad, but she’d scratched the hell out of it. Paint was just paint though, right? She needed that money, still had the machete out…

There was no sign of the pig, but as she pushed past the oak, letting the vines catch the blade and then snap against it, feeling a sense of strain, she thought she saw something else, something running towards where the ground was still open. The pig? She had to see, had to find out.

Caris tried to creep now, but there was no stealth in a giant robot. The crashing sound of her own footsteps filled her ears, drowning out the music. So close… there. Just there.

It was a lone zebra, something that would have made more sense in Kenya than here. Caris raked her mind for an explanation; was she hallucinating from a lack of oxygen? No, her O2 stats displayed were good. She could feel the rub behind her ears from the tubes. It was a real zebra, the description filtering over the screen.

Memories from a childhood field trip filtered into her mind. Down south, there used to be a big house. They called it a castle, a publisher’s monument to hubris from decades ago. The owner had filled his land with wild animals, and long after he died, the zebras had remained, breeding and carefully managed. Then, about five years prior, wildfires had burnt the whole thing down, destroyed the fences. No one knew what happened to the zebras that lived there, but here one was, miles away from home and looking at her, eyes rolling in its head, white foam at the corners of its mouth.

No pig, but her eyes were riveted on the animal, watching as it slowly backed away, then turned and ran, galloping across dry earth and grasses that would probably burn in a few weeks. It might have been the last one, for all she knew, and in every movement there was beauty and sadness. Zebras were meant to live in herds, from what she remembered of long-ago nature documentaries. Then again, this zebra wasn’t meant to be alive at all. Not here, not now. It was supposed to be a relic of the past, something not meant to last in the current environment. What would happen to it?

Was adaptation possible when the environment kept shifting beneath its hooves? She watched the zebra for a few minutes more, its eyes searching for an escape. It had long scars along one of its flanks, the sign of battles fought, yet it appeared healthy otherwise. Like so many other creatures, it had survived. It had carved out a niche for itself here. Where the world would not willingly yield, the zebra had made it. It had survived.

Then, perhaps, so would Caris. Survival was not made for them. They existed on a plane that denied their very right to endure, but there were no other options. As the zebra pushed and pushed to make a space for itself in these kudzu-choked hills, so too did Caris. It was not cowardice, she realized, to make the world accommodate you. It was not asking too much to survive.

The zebra was alone, but so vibrantly alive. Its muscles quivered, preparing to run. It would be so easy to give in without the support of the herd or facing a robotic terror armed with a blade, yet even now the zebra sought a way out. Escape was possible. Life was possible.

Sheathing the machete, Caris turned back. There was kudzu still to cut, bounties to be earned. There was a group of corps members that waited for her. Most importantly, there was the power, the autonomy that the mech gave her. The world had not made space for her. Instead, Caris would punch a woman-shaped hole into it. She was not alone, as the zebra was. She had her friends, the other corps members. She had the memory of the zebra springing away, the sound of its hooves hitting the dry earth. One improbable survivor. Two, if she counted herself.

With another laugh, she ran back simply for the joy of running, of feeling the oxygen in her veins and knowing that the mech too, was a part of her body.


Author’s Note: I was thinking about the future of assistive tech and also thinking about giant robots, as I usually am. Somehow the two conflated in my mind and managed to weave their way in and around my sometimes day job of writing about the native environment to form “Kudzu.” 

Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers is a California based writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Creative Writing and has since worked primarily as a nature/conservation writer. Her essays have also been in the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons, while her fiction has appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge. Her poetry can be found in Strange Horizons and Kalediotrope.


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